Why isn’t It a prestige miniseries for some cable or streaming company? Andy Muschietti’s two-part film clearly yearns for that format, not only in its patience-testing length — nearly three hours just for Chapter Two, with the director teasing reporters about the prospect of a 6.5-hour supercut — but in an episodic structure that frustrates those who expect certain kinds of dynamics in drama and suspense. Literally doubling the number of actors who played key roles in its predecessor, 2017’s Chapter One, the film puts excellent thesps in the parts but winds up feeling much less satisfying. Even so, it’ll likely be seen by a sizable percentage of the moviegoers who made the first film a worldwide hit.
The eponymous villain from that pic, one may recall, is a shape-shifting nightmare who preys on the children of Derry, Maine, but for some reason only comes around every 27 years. (He’s most often seen in the guise of a creepy clown called Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard.) Chapter One ended with a band of teens defeating It in 1989, promising that whatever became of them in the future, they’d team up again if the thing ever came back. Now it’s 2016, and time to make good on that oath.
Trouble is, only one of these self-dubbed “Losers” remembers the pact. Earnest Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one who has stayed in Derry, has spent the decades studying local lore about the monster; he sleeps in a library’s attic next to a police scanner, waiting to hear about kids who’ve gone missing. After a spate of disappearances, he starts phoning up his old friends. Though a weird amnesia has struck them all, each one intuits the grave nature of the call — Richie (Bill Hader) feels it so deeply he immediately vomits.
Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman devote a full 30 minutes to nearly nothing but one character introduction after another, seeing how true each has stayed to his childhood self: Hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone) remains obsessed with risk; Jessica Chastain’s Beverly, having escaped her abusive father, finds herself reliving ugly patterns with a jealous husband; in the case of nervous Stanley, viewers may be distracted by what a great job casting director Rich Delia did matching Andy Bean to Wyatt Oleff, who played the character as a child.
Stanley’s the only one who refuses to venture back to Derry, where a feel-good reunion over Chinese food — see how Ben (Jay Ryan), the chubby sweet kid, turned into a hunk! (and a billionaire!) — soon gives way to resurging memories of the terrors these friends have suppressed.
But they don’t really need those memories, because this film now repeats the previous one nearly beat for beat, with each character individually facing the monster and witnessing its power. Skarsgard gets more opportunities to stretch this time, even if the movie remains oddly uncontented with the flesh-and-blood actor: On the rare occasion when Pennywise doesn’t morph into some entirely new pustulant, decomposing boogeyman, Muschietti has his CG team end a straightforward shot by pushing the clown’s features around on his face. He’s scary enough on his own, guys.
Each of these many one-on-one scenes works well enough on its own, but the series grows monotonous and fails to generate an escalating dread. Have pity on the filmmakers, who must try to give meaningful things to do to both established, world-class actors like Chastain and a recent breakthrough like Hader, who steals scenes as a stand-up comic who remains the Losers’ fount of snark.
And all this while cutting back to the first film’s cast, fleshing out bits of their 1989-set story. These flashbacks just serve to remind us of the delightful chemistry those relative newcomers shared, something that doesn’t really happen for the older bunch.
The older Losers are less an organic team than a collection of protagonists: James McAvoy’s Bill is the story’s heart in an obvious sense — Pennywise’s abduction of his kid brother set things in motion, and he still feels guilty for not keeping him safe. But Mike’s the one with 27 years’ worth of research to share, so shouldn’t we be paying more attention to him? Or maybe to Beverly, who had a kind of mind-meld with It in the last film, and has had visions of each of her friends dying; her desperation to break free of both that fate and past trauma grounds the story in the real world.
Though Muschietti occasionally finds lovely filmic ways to transition from one to the next, the stories don’t get to resonate with each other in a meaningful or emotional way — as they might in a series of well-crafted hourlong episodes. A moviegoer who just sat for 169 minutes is loath to say it, but there needs to be more of this It — just not in this form.
Production companies: Double Dream, Vertigo Entertainment, RideBack
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Barbara Muschietti, Dan Lin, Roy Lee
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Gary Dauberman, Marty Ewing, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg
Director of photography: Checco Varese
Production designer: Paul Denham Austerberry
Costume designer: Luis Sequeira
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting director: Rich Delia
Rated R, 169 minutes