It Chapter Two continues the story begun in It (2017), picking up 27 years after the seven preteen members of the self-titled "Losers Club" battled a supernatural, shape-shifting entity that had been terrorizing the small town of Derry, Maine, for hundreds of years. Under the direction of Andy Muschietti, It was one of the best Stephen King adaptations in years, as it captured a sublime mix of abject horrors with a sense of real-life minutia, good humor, and the love of popular culture that characterizes King's best work. Any adaptation of It, a sprawling 1986 novel that covers nearly 1,200 pages with its chronologically jumbled narrative, would be a challenge. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman took the approach of untangling novel's interwoven narrative in and restructuring it into two self-contained stories, with It taking place in 1989 and Chapter Two in 2016.
This puts Chapter Two at an immediate disadvantage, as it is unable to benefit from the nostalgia of late-'80s popular culture and the complex inner worlds of American adolescents that characterized the first film. It is not too surprising, then, that the film features numerous flashbacks to the main characters' shared childhood, with Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Chosen Jacobs reprising their adolescent roles. The vast majority of the film, which runs nearly three hours, takes place in 2016, with the main characters, now in their early 40s and with almost no memory of what happened back in the summer of 1989, being called back to Derry because the titular entity, which takes on many horrifying shapes, but prefers the form of a demented clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgrd), has re-emerged and started killing again.
The job of recalling the members of the Losers Club falls to Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who is the only one of the group to have stayed in Derry, working as the local librarian. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist; Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer married to an abusive husband; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian; Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is an architect; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk analyst; and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is an accountant. All of them have found professional success, and most of them have either overcome the issues that handicapped them as children (Bill has stopped stuttering, Ben has lost weight) or turned them to their advantage (Eddie's hypochondria makes him a perfect risk analyst, and Richie's motor mouth serves him well as a comedian). They still bear the scars of childhood, though, some more than others. Beverly's marriage to a controlling, abusive man mirrors the relationship she had with her father, while Stanley's deep-rooted fear gets the best of him early on and Bill's lingering guilt over the death of his little brother Georgie (the opening event of both King's novel and the first film) still drives him from deep within. One of the film's primary achievements is the way it melds the preteen characters with their adult selves, letting us see how they have and haven't changed.
Returning director Andy Muschietti maintains much of what made the first film so good, especially the balance of horror and humor (the chemistry among the cast members is quite good and also emotionally varied, from the amusing trading of insults between the verbose, but insecure Richie and the transparently high-strung Eddie, to the long-standing unrequited love the newly svelte Ben still feels for Beverly). Muschietti puts together a few stand-out sequences, including Beverly's return to her childhood home, where she encounters an elderly woman whose demeanor grows more and more uncanny with each passing moment. It's a small master class in tension and suggestion, which stands in stark contrast to the protracted climax, which finds everyone deep in the bowels of the earth beneath Derry doing battle with Pennywise as an enormous spider-creature. Each of the characters must face Pennywise in some form or fashion, and scenes that don't seem like they should work on paper (such as the one in which Richie is attacked by a giant Paul Bunyan statute come to horrific life) somehow do. The film also gains a notable edge for its unrelenting willingness to victimize children, which registered more in the first film because the protagonists were children themselves, whereas they are all now adults who, curiously, have no children of their own.
As a whole, though, It Chapter Two feels more rambling and shaggy than the first film, perhaps because its success gave Muschietti more room to work (which isn't always a good thing). A lot of subplots from the novel have been dropped, but perhaps a few more should have been, including the one about the local bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) escaping from a mental institution and operating under Pennywise's control. Similarly, the climactic battle feels like too much, as if Muschietti felt he was required to pour it on with extra strength to justify the film's heavy running time (cheeky cameos by Peter Bogdanovich as a director helming an adaptation of Bill's latest novel and King himself as a pawn shop owner offer unnecessary distractions). It Chapter Two has enough going for it that it doesn't quite feel like a disappointment, but neither does it fully recreate the first film's gripping action and rich emotional texture.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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