Bill Skarsgård in It: Chapter Two (Photo: Warner)

(SUMMER MOVIE WRAP 2019: Best Film, Biggest Disappointment, Top Moneymakers, Worst Remake, and more! For a look at the highlights and low points of the cinema season, go here.)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Andrew Muschietti
STARS Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy

To paraphrase the opening of every continuing television series of a certain vintage: “Previously on It…”

In the small Maine town of Derry in 1989, seven kids who call themselves the Losers Club band together to defeat Pennywise, an evil supernatural force that primarily takes the form of a mincing clown and gobbles up small children like so many tater tots. Now, what will happen in this week’s episode?

That’s a no-brainer to anyone who has ever heard of Stephen King — which means everyone with even faint knowledge of the literary world. King’s massive (both in length and in sales) book It was first made into a TV miniseries back in 1990, and while the 1986 novel didn’t need any help in placing Pennywise squarely in the midst of pop culture prominence, having a visualization of the demonic clown (brought to life in splendid fashion by Tim Curry) certainly didn’t hurt in allowing many folks a shorthand in picturing it, err, It.

Another interpretation was offered when the theatrical version of It struck box office gold two Septembers ago. Taking a cue from the likes of The Hobbit and that final Harry Potter saga, Warner Bros. elected to turn King’s doorstop into a two-part movie event, with the first chapter focusing exclusively on the exploits of the kiddie version of the Losers Club. The result was a fairly engrossing endeavor in which the segments that centered on the children and their intertwined relationships were far more effective than the sequences in which they squared off against Pennywise and his nasty tricks (go here for the full review).

Taking place 27 years later, It: Chapter Two opens with a needlessly prolonged sequence focusing on a hate crime that was also in King’s novel albeit with one key difference (perhaps as a nod to Trump’s AmeriKKKa, the homophobic perpetrators here manage to get away with murder). That in turn leads to the reappearance of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), ready to again feed his blood lust after nearly three decades away. The grown-up Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only Loser who remained in Derry precisely because he anticipated the creepy clown’s return, gets in touch with his former childhood friends with a request for all of them to return home to battle this evil anew.

Naturally, as in much popular fiction, all of them have become fabulously wealthy – none are working as a janitor or a social worker or a film reviewer. Bill (James McAvoy) is an author and screenwriter; Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer; Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect; Richie (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian; and Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk analyst (not sexy, but profitable). We don’t learn the profession of Stanley (Andy Bean), but he lives in a fabulous house and he and his wife are planning a vacation to Buenos Aires, so there’s that.

IT 2_Day 23_08012018_07805.dng
Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa and Jay Ryan (Photo: Warner)

All but one of them make it back to Derry, and their return also triggers a return of the memories they had long forgotten or otherwise suppressed. Mike details how exactly they will kill Pennywise; first, though, they must all confront their own fears, ones that snake back to their distant pasts.

While It benefited from its leisurely 135-minute run time, It: Chapter Two is all but crippled by its bloated 170-minute length. None of those extraneous minutes are employed in the service of further character development or deep dives into the thematic material on hand. Instead, these heroes were far more interesting and fleshed out as children (despite the efforts of a fine cast, particularly Ransone and Hader), and the major issues — the power of friendship; the necessity of reconciling with our pasts; the need to stand up to our fears — remain at fortune-cookie level.

Speaking of fortune cookies, one of the first sequences that tips director Andrew Muschietti’s hand finds scores of these Chinese-restaurant staples bursting open and unleashing icky monsters that attack the sextet. The CGI employment in this endless scene is a sign of what It: Chapter Two is ultimately about: the ability to showcase reams of digital effects at the expense of everything else. There’s a numbing repetition to these moments (one a direct steal from a classic sequence found in John Carpenter’s The Thing), and Muschietti’s attempts to frighten viewers fall dismally flat under the incessant rush of so many wanna-be jump scares. When you’ve seen one toothy, slobbering demon, you’ve seen ‘em all — the fact that one has spider legs while another sports saggy breasts while yet another has a generous Gene-Simmons-in-KISS tongue ultimately doesn’t make any difference. The overkill can be found at every turn and around every corner, with each character’s subsequent encounter with a grotesquerie adding nothing to the film but more minutes.

Stephen Sondheim may have once written to send in the clowns, but after the unrelenting tedium of It: Chapter Two, the more logical urge is to send them packing.

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