Pennywise Featured

John Hodgman, the author, tv, and podcast personality, is often wont to declare that nostalgia is toxic. It inhibits growth, it deludes, it creates misery in the present. I found myself thinking about that a lot as I pondered IT CHAPTER TWO. I tend to take a less harsh stance, being more of a J.D. Salinger, already nostalgic for the moment just passed.

However, I cannot deny that he has a point. As glorious as our pasts can be, returning to them never matches our first experience. Holding our past in esteem can be a wonderful thing, insisting upon it as a “better time” can crush us.

This is the challenge of IT CHAPTER TWO. The accepted wisdom about the adult portions of the novel is that they pale in comparison to the youthful parts. So does CHAPTER TWO seek refuge in those past supposedly superior moments or does it push forward and try to find success in adulthood, regardless of the reputation? It is the theme of the movie itself too: memories have the capacity to destroy you by either sapping your will to try something new or trapping you forever in past pain.

Finally, it is the challenge of the reviewer. Can one watch the movie and judge it in the present or will it inevitably be swept up in the ITs that came before, on the page, the TV, the silver screen?

IT CHAPTER TWO: The Losers Adults
Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, and Jay Ryan take a break from running from Pennywise to have a in the woods pose off. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

The Idea Behind IT CHAPTER TWO

Twenty-seven years have passed since the Losers’ Club first opposed and defeated the ancient evil known as Pennywise. Time has spread them here and there with only Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) staying behind. A hate crime, however, signals that IT was not killed, only sent to an early sleep.

Hanlon, the only Loser with his memory still intact, reaches out to Ben (Jay Ryan), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Eddie (James Ransone), Richie (Bill Hader), and Stan (Andy Bean). Each has proven successful in their own right, each has built lives far beyond their small Maine town, each has forgotten the terror of that summer. They made a promise all those years ago, a promise to return to finish what they started.

From the moment each Loser gets the call, their memory begins to return. All but Stan decide to return to their hometown. The longer they stay in Derry, the more their memories rush back. Can each confront the traumas of their childhoods, find their own unique talisman, and muster up the courage for own last battle against evil incarnate?

IT CHAPTER TWO: Mike Hanlon
Isaiah Mustafa takes a book break in a moment from IT CHAPTER TWO. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Writing IT CHAPTER TWO

Gary Dauberman, flying solo on this film after being one of the three screenwriters in the prior film, struggles against the volume of material he has to adapt. Some choices — the simplification of The Ritual of Chüd — are good calls. Others, like the constant solo missions of each of the Losers, cause some pacing issues. Additionally, those missions rob the players of the cohesion that was so key to the narrative success of the first film. There is argument to be made for the symbolic elements of having the adult Losers be fractured, certainly. However, it still denies viewers the thrill of a talented ensemble really connecting and playing off one another.

The dialogue in CHAPTER TWO sometimes serves a similar symbolic function, demonstrating how quickly and easily people can slip back into old relationship and speech patterns. Again, the symbolic nature of juvenile jokes and crushes that won’t die makes sense. On other hand, it often paints the characters as hopelessly immature and regressed, making them more annoying then endearing. It feels authentic but also makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

IT CHAPTER TWO: Eddie
James Ransone contemplates the ball during IT CHAPTER TWO. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Casting the Losers Club

Much has been made of how strong the casting of CHAPTER TWO is and you know what? People are right. With the exception of Jay Ryan as Ben, which there is an in-story reason for, the adults capture their younger counterparts’ essences in appearance, body language, and posture.

Early on, I also thought Mustafa didn’t really work as Mike, but when he is able to lighten, as in the early part of the Chinese restaurant season or late in the film, you can see it. In retrospect Mustafa’s work as the Loser who stayed behind conveys that cost. We can see how Mike has been changed by being on watch. I increasingly warmed to the performance as the film went on and the more I’ve thought about it since.

The young Losers — Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Finn Wolfhard — return, at least partially via the magic of CGI de-aging and ADR pitch adjustment. Even with the digital magic, their performances remain singular, fully realized and emotionally affecting. The adults do well, certainly, but the children remain an absolute highlight.

IT CHAPTER TWO Richie
Bill Hader is seeing, not believing, in a scene from IT CHAPTER TWO. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

There seems to be less of IT as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) in this installment. However, Skarsgård’s performance remains every bit as strong. If anything, the reduced screentime makes his two scenes targeting children all the more intense and disconcerting. This is especially the case in a scene under the school bleachers where he expertly plays not upon a child’s fear but their sympathies. It is such a naked act of manipulative evil to the viewer while being so understandably enticing to the child. That’s a difficult balance to manage.

Less realized is Teach Grant as the grown-up bully Henry Bowers. Unlike Nicholas Hamilton’s version of the teen Bowers, adult Bowers feels entirely like a tool of IT. Teen Bowers was monstrous but there was recognizable human failing to his rage and hate. Here he might as well just be sentient version of the knife he carries. That’s how little depth the script allows him.

IT CHAPTER TWO: Beverly
Jessica Chastain seeks respite in a bathroom during IT CHAPTER TWO. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Directing IT CHAPTER TWO

Andy Muschietti is an undeniably skilled director. His mix of terror, tension, and humor feels a bit off in comparison to the first film, but that does not undermine his talents. Even at nearly three hours, CHAPTER TWO never feels sluggish, something that largely be owed to how Muschietti captures and presents the movie’s events.

He also seems to have a talent for coaching actors to strong performances. While I certainly believe certain characters get short shrift in the narrative (Mike, especially in the first film, Ben in this installment), their performances remain strong even when limited. On a pure acting basis, there are no weak links amongst the adult or child casts.

Finally, his grasp for how the familiar can feel both safe and dangerous — and how thin the line between each state can be — is strong. Derry feels wickedly alive in his hands, a place of both supportive and damning memories, just like all our hometowns.

The Three Doors
Choose carefully. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Is IT CHAPTER TWO Scary?

Another prominent debate over this movie is whether or not it equals the scares of the first installment and/or is scary on its own merits. Obviously, a lot of this depends on your personal fears and your general level of horror tolerance.

As a notable coward, I still found the first film more frightening. The sort of fears depicted in this film stand as a big reason. Here they are stranger than in the first installment, for sure. As a result, they don’t always read as scary in the same way they might have on the page. A spider with the head of your dead friend, for instance, is a horror to contemplate. In CGI practice though there is a fakeness to it that makes it, perhaps, unnerving but not exactly terrifying. Similarly, the infamous fortune cookies at the restaurant where the Losers reunite are bizarre and disconcerting. If you were there, you’d be horrified. However, with the distance of celluloid, it feels strange but not as viscerally frightening.

That said, the film’s first Pennywise sighting comes after a vicious hate crime. It’s easily the darkest and scariest thing in either film because it feels undeniably real. In a movie of otherworldly chills and thrills, it is the kind of bone deep fear that needs no CGI or imagination to make the heart race.

IT CHAPTER TWO Losers as Kids
Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Jaeden Martell, Finn Wolfhard, and Chosen Jacobs have a moment of self-reflection. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

That’s a Wrap

As you can see above, I struggled with this movie quite a bit. That’s, in part, because I love IT, the novel. It is my favorite Stephen King book and, given my affinity for the author, that makes it one of favorite novels of all time. That’s a lot of expectation to live up to.

On top of that, I loved the first movie. It “got” the book so well that it knocked me out. I never expected it to be that good.

However, reviewing IT CHAPTER TWO should be out reviewing the movie itself, not the movie as a sequel or the movie as an adaptation. On that front, it is good. It (or IT) is not great, but it is good. The actors are strong, there are a couple of excellent Pennywise-child scenes that make the blood run cold, Derry is well-realized. It is also irregularly paced, the otherworldly scares fall flat, and not every character gets their due. The film is a mixed bag, for certain. That mixed bag, though, is recommended.

Shed your nostalgia, for the movie, for the book, and take it in as its own object. Judge it on its own merits. There is too much to like to get caught on what it isn’t. Too much to appreciate to stuck on what it does not live up to.

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