A history of disappointment has lowered the bar for Stephen King adaptations. A few extraordinary exceptions aside, adaptations of King’s work tend to range from acceptable to disastrous. Some draw on weaker material. (There’s likely a ceiling on how good any film version of Thinner could be.) Others fail to explore the underlying themes of King’s books in favor of scares — like either version of Pet Sematary — or get so lost in the wispier aspects of King’s writing that the creators forget the appeal of a good scare or an unsettling moment. (Think back to Hearts in Atlantis, if any memory of it remains.)
So when a pretty good film like 2017’s It comes along, it tends to look better just by comparison. Adapting the first half of King’s ambitious 1986 novel — in which a group of Derry, Maine-based kids battle an evil entity that mostly takes the form of a clown named Pennywise — director Andy Muschietti led a talented group of child actors through a largely faithful adaptation that effectively mixed scares and sentiment. Part one of It featured a few standout setpieces, and while none topped the film-opening sewer grate encounter between a little boy and Pennywise (played with shifty malevolence by Bill Skarsgard), the winning cast worked together beautifully. The film ended on an unresolved note that set the stage for a second chapter. The second half could have been even better, as it brought in an adult cast to address the first installment’s still-lingering horrors.
It Chapter Two isn’t that even-better film, though. It’s an appreciably less-engaging film in every way, suffering from lurching storytelling, wild vacillations in tone (even within scenes), and a strong cast that never fully gels as a group. Worst of all, it substitutes excess for suspense in a long middle section that finds one character after another having interchangeable encounters with Pennywise in which the self-proclaimed “eater of worlds” never appears to be a real threat. Sure, he munches on a few minor characters, but the main cast appears to be off-limits. At worst, he seems like an eater of child actors and other characters who are much lower on the call sheet than the leads.
The film opens with a flashback featuring the cast of the original film (most of them noticeably de-aged via digital effects), the first of many such moments. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman (Annabelle, The Nun) has a hard time staying true to the “Chapter Two” portion of the title. He repeatedly returns to the summer of 1989 to flesh out the backstories of the now-middle-aged friends who call themselves the Losers’ Club. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has remained behind in Derry, keeping a watchful eye for their enemy’s return while setting up house in the attic of the town library. Others have scattered to the four winds, including Bill (James McAvoy), now a successful novelist; Richie (Bill Hader), who’s spun his talent for wisecracks into a career as a self-loathing stand-up comic; and Beverly (Jessica Chastain), now a successful fashion designer whose abusive marriage echoes her relationship with her father.
She isn’t alone in directly translating her childhood into adulthood. Eddie (James Ransone) has traded a worry-paralyzed mother for a similarly inclined wife. The film does little to flesh out the psychological shorthand of King’s novel, in which grown-ups blindly reenact the trauma of their childhoods, but at least Bev and Eddie feel connected to the past. Ben (Jay Ryan) has grown from a soulful overweight kid to a dull hunk of a man who seems to have little in common with his former self beyond carrying a torch for Beverly.
When the killings fire up in Derry again, Mike summons his old friends back home, and they respond to the call, even though they only have vague memories of what happened to them in the summer of ’89. They barely remember each other or Mike. That changes upon arrival when the past starts to come back to them, first in ripples, then in waves. Pennywise starts to make his presence felt almost immediately.
At the same time, the movie starts to trip over itself. Charged by Mike with finding tokens from the past they can use in their fight against Pennywise, each character wanders Derry and experiences both a flashback to their younger selves and an encounter with Pennywise. Some of these scenes work, like Bev’s return to her childhood apartment. (Most of that scene was released as a teaser trailer.) Some sequences don’t gel, like Richie’s middle-of-the-day encounter with a murderous Paul Bunyan statue, the most insubstantial CG effect in a film crawling with them — sometimes literally. But none of these face-offs push the plot forward or reveal much about the characters, in spite of some strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Hader.
That’s particularly frustrating when those performances do hit their stride during the individual scenes that do push the story forward. The many scenes featuring the child cast of the first film feel extraneous. But they also don’t do the adult cast any favors because they remind viewers of the children’s chemistry, which their elders never find together. That mismatch might have worked if Muschietti had tied it to the obvious themes the film could have explored, like how adulthood keeps people anchored to what shaped us as kids while pushing us away from the companionship and freedom that made childhood tolerable. But where It had a lot to say about what it feels like to be a 13-year-old outcast who takes solace in friendship, It Chapter Two struggles to express much about middle age, its disappointments, or its compensations.
All that might not have mattered nearly as much if the film was scarier. Skarsgard has some chilling moments, but when he isn’t on-screen, It Chapter Two struggles to remain unsettling as its protagonists stumble down one reality-warped version of Derry after another before escaping back to reality — if “escape” is even the right word. (The film nods to one obvious inspiration by featuring a marquee for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, and while it’s much better than that movie, even in that weak entry, Freddy Krueger seemed capable of harm.)
Maybe that’s why It Chapter Two keeps undercutting its creepiness with gags and one-liners that often feel wildly out of place, even when being delivered by a pro like Hader. One running gag does work, however. As an author of Stephen King-esque best-sellers, Bill keeps encountering people who are all too eager to mock his books’ lousy endings, a complaint often leveled at King’s novels as well. It’s too bad acknowledging a problem isn’t the same as solving it.
But while It Chapter Two brings the story to an unsatisfying close, the It movies taken as a whole deserve credit for their ambition and for trying to capture one of King’s best books in full. It Chapter Two never really depicts the way dewy sentimentality can curdle into pain and regret or considers whether the other side of middle age offers a way of letting go of the past. Its monster only occasionally embodies the otherworldly fearfulness that leads the characters to speak of it in hushed tones.
But at least Muschietti is trying for something epic and intimidating, a story on a grand scale instead of the kind of minor, just-good-enough storytelling that’s marked so many King adaptations. His work gets points for thoughtfulness and effort. But while his films are better than a lot of King adaptations, the way they often seem this close to reaching greatness without getting there ultimately makes them more frustrating than films made by people who are trying half as hard and settling for something half as good.