*Major spoilers to follow for IT Chapter Two*
IT Chapter Two has a whole lot in common with its main baddie, Bill Skarsgård‘s Pennywise the fear-eating demon. Director Andy Muschietti‘s latest is a big, unwieldy beast that’s constantly changing shape over its two-hour-and-45-minute runtime; sometimes a clown, sometimes a monster, occasionally something to make you sick, make you sad, make you nervous. But by the time the Losers Club literally pulls their nemesis’ heart from his chest, Pennywise’s many forms have been revealed as just that, layers and layers of masks on top of a flimsy core; the Losers win by recognizing the structure and pulling it apart.
I’ve been grappling with why IT Chapter Two didn’t work for me since I left a screening a few weeks ago, because most of the major criticisms didn’t sit well. It’s not the runtime; the movie could shave off a line or two, yeah, but Muschietti and writer Gary Dauberman are dealing with seven main characters—well, six, after the early exit of Stanley (Andy Bean)—across multiple timelines, and if anything I think the film could’ve benefitted with just a little more time fleshing out each one’s wants and needs. (Especially poor Mike, played by Isaiah Mustafa, whose sole character trait is “really needs to move away from home.”) And the film’s main issue certainly isn’t the same one often lobbed at Stephen King’s original book, which is that the adult Losers—in this case, Mustafa, Bean, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, and Jay Ryan—just aren’t as charming as the kid counterparts. Because even though that’s admittedly kind of true, it’s also, essentially, the entire point of IT, that growing up strips away the sun-drenched lense that makes childhood seem like a dream.
No, the thing that sinks IT Chapter Two is the same thing that vanquishes Pennywise; after a while, you can see it’s structure plain as day, and it’s a dang flimsy one. Forget the beginning—because that Chinese restaurant scene is endearing AF—and forget that ending. The entire middle of the film is less a narrative than it is a series of vignettes, thanks to Mike’s mission for his fellow Losers: to complete the Ritual of Chüd, each Loser must collect a token of great personal significance. Padding out the mission is the fact half the items are accompanied by a flashback to a scare that happened during the summer of 1989.
The problem with this formula, other than the fact that, for over an hour, it is so clearly a formula, is threefold. For one, nothing in the second actor other than the revelation about Ritchie’s sexuality—which is, admittedly, wonderfully handled in concept if not entirely in execution—reveals anything about the Losers that we didn’t learn in Chapter One. Bill is haunted by Georgie’s death. Beverly can’t escape the specter of her abusive father. Ben fell in love with Beverly at a time in his life he didn’t feel capable of being loved. Eddie’s fear of germs goes hand-in-hand with his complicated feelings toward an overbearing mother. We’re meant to re-learn all this, often across two different timelines; I miss Jack Dylan Grazer and Sophia Lillis as much as anyone, even with their freaky de-aged faces, but returning to the past is only worth it when it informs the present.
Secondly, the second-act rinse-and-repeat actively works to make Pennywise less intimidating, despite Skarsgård’s best efforts. In the lead-up to IT: Chapter Two, the hype hinged on one pissed off murder-clown, who for the first time in millions of years felt what it was like to hurt. “For 27 years, I dreamt of you. I craved you. I’ve missed you,” the trailer voice-over said, painting a picture of the ultimate vendetta. Then, for that thudding middle section of the film, Pennywise chooses to…sort of vaguely toy with the Losers, when he even notices they’re back in town at all. I genuinely hate nitpicking a plot. Not here to pick nits. This isn’t CinemaSins. But the most truly baffling moment in IT Chapter Two—somehow even more so than that head-scratching “Angel of the Morning” needle drop—is the moment Pennywise quite literally hands Bill the boat Georgie lost down the sewer, the token he needed to participate in the Ritual of Chüd.
And thirdly, and most plainly, every set-piece in the middle of the film is the same exact scare with a different CGI face. The movie’s third act is absolutely weird as shit and I respect the hell out of every spider-head The Thing homage and mutant shape-shifting puppy Muschietti eventually gets around to. But those only come after a parade of shocks that go exactly like this:
1. A character hears a noise.
2. Is there something behind that curtain?
3. PULL BACK THE CURTAIN.
4. Ah, nothing behind the curtain.
5. Wait now there IS SOMETHING BEHIND THE CURTAIN.
That middle portion is frustrating only because there is so much to love in IT Chapter Two. There is a beating, beautiful heart buried beneath that sludgy structure. There are the simultaneously heartwrenching and hilarious performances put in by Bill Hader and James Ransone. There’s Bill Skarsgård still working to create a modern monster icon, something I wish this movie trusted him to do more without CGI wonkery. There’s that absolutely bonkers ending sprint, which, despite some confused moral messaging, is truly the type of swing-for-the-fences Lovecraftian strangeness that you’re not going to get in a lot of major studio horror flicks. There’s Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy screaming at a frightened child in the middle of a suburban street, which isn’t supposed to be a highlight but brought me joy all the same.
IT Chapter Two‘s bright spots do, in the end, outweigh its mind-numbing Deadlights, but I’m still left wrestling with a disappointing return trip to Derry. If Chapter One was a smoothly-built paper boat sailing down a rain-drenched road, its sequel is a crudely assembled craft with a sloppy crease right down its center, almost enough to sink it from the start.
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