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Quite a few more than 99 red balloons go by in a frightful montage that decorates the personal terrors of the returning characters in IT: CHAPTER 2.  The cheerful child’s toy was effectively turned into a harbinger of dread in the 2017 original movie that exploited the fears and traumas of a group of small town misfits.  The orchestrator of both the rash of disappearances around Derry, Maine, and the murderous pursuit of those unlikely investigators was embodied in the form of a phantasmagoric clown called Pennywise.  Almost three decades after what they believed was their victory over the nightmare jester, the balloons fly again and people disappear, or turn up in pieces, and the members of the “Losers’ Club” return to Derry to face their foe and their fears.

They’ve all moved on.  Far from their hometown, the Losers have become successful writers, famous comedians, and trophy wives.  Only one who endured the terror remains; the stalwart Mike established strong roots in Derry and has spent a lifetime examining its origins to find out what brought the clown to town in the first place.  His are also the first pair of ears that perk up when more people suddenly begin to turn up missing and dismembered. 

Quickly putting two and two together and coming up Pennywise, Mike reaches out to those far away friends to gather them back to Derry to take down the clown once again.  While the others have enough of a recollection about their friendship to take the call, their remembrances of that tragic summer are foggy.  Even so, the subconscious memories awoken by Mike’s phone calls manifests in unspecific panic, projectile vomiting, and in one case, a suicide.

Upon arrival in Derry, it doesn’t take long for the remaining Losers to remember all too well why they left; a recollection that is enhanced when horrific hallucinations begin almost immediately.  Pennywise wastes no time in welcoming back the ones that got away, and even employs the Losers’ childhood bully, himself driven insane by that summer, to help him get the job done.

Even as adults who know what the clown is capable of, the Losers are unprepared for decades-old bandages to be ripped off of festering wounds by the laughing murderer.  Unresolved conflicts, unhealed emotional scars, and deep-rooted fears once again serve as beautiful tableaus for Pennywise to construct his all-too-real nightmares.  Just as he intended when they were children, the clown will have them one way or another; by driving them insane or tearing them apart with his piranha-like teeth.

IT: CHAPTER 2 falls short of the original 2017 movie.  There was a magic, freshness, and symmetry to the first film that isn’t here.  Perhaps it was the performances -- individual and combined -- of the kids of the Losers’ Club that radiated a naturalness that viewers could easily relate to and cheer for.  We could feel their fright as they faced those surreal, bloodcurdling scenes.  Perhaps it was those imaginative depictions of terror that cut so close to viewers’ primal fears that made it so fun to watch?  Maybe it was the deeply disturbing presence of the clown of everyone’s nightmares, Pennywise, as the spider at the center of the deadly web of horror?  Whatever it was, those qualities are lacking in large amounts, or entirely absent in this sequel.  It’s not genuinely scary enough, the performances are mostly rote and unengaging, and there’s not one moment (Save a pre-credit non-Loser scare that showed more evil than just the clown.) that lingers in the mind once this way-too-long chapter is over.

With rare exceptions, the level of acting in IT CHAPTER 2 is a far cry from the heartfelt, all-in performances by the child counterparts from the first film.  Nagging in this respect is the character of Mike, and I am not sure if it’s the writing of the role, or the actor’s portrayal, or both.  Mike is essentially the lynchpin of the whole operation; the reason the Losers come back, and yet we really never understand why even – or especially – with their clouded recollections of that fateful summer, they would just drop everything to return to a place they felt no compunction to see for nearly 30 years?  Has Mike has stayed in touch with, or even Facebooked these people?  

The other huge issue with the character is that Mike is the worst explainer of things in the world.  He doesn’t seem able to make clear why they are the ones who need to face Pennywise?  He doesn’t let it be known until nearly the end of this overlong trial that he has researched and found a way to kill Pennywise once and for all.  He seems perfectly fine watching awful things happen to his friends without providing any sort of information or preparation.  For all we know, they can all just leave Derry and that’s it.  See ya later, Derry people.  Nothing about Mike or his explanations makes sense and definitely are no rallying cry to voluntarily face a murderous monster. 

This version of Mike is contrary to the smart, strong young boy from the first film.  Eventually, when he finally does disclose what he’s learned about It’s connections to a Maine Indian tribe, the revelation is convoluted and confusing.  Mike is so poor at getting his point across that he literally has to drug one of the Losers without his permission to make him understand what he’s trying to say.  Of course, this is how all life and death decisions should be made.  It’s frustrating when several characters look about to leave, but are inexplicably called back to fight the monster.  The characters just go along vapidly, like the writers need them to.  Certainly, no one can chalk their sense of duty up to Mike’s skills of persuasion.

Mike also sticks out like a sore thumb because the actor who portrays him, Isaiah Mustafa, was much more convincing riding a horse barechested in Old Spice commercials than holding his own as a small town hero going to war against his childhood nightmare.  He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face at any given moment, and his reactions (and lack thereof) to green screen shots that are meant to be terrifying are almost comical. 

As Bill, James McAvoy seems tired and disinterested, with no connection to the guilt-ridden sibling still mourning his little bro.  Jessica Chastain must’ve had a large supply of liquid nitrogen for all her teary-eyed close-ups.  It should’ve been interesting to have seen her abused Beverly not exactly grow up to be the independent, assertive woman viewers hoped she’d become after the original film; but her listlessness for most of the operation just becomes tiresome.   

The only two that stand out for the better are Bill Hader as Richie, the glasses-wearing smart Alec who now commands large sums to crack wise, and James Ransone as Eddie, the anal-retentive Momma’s boy who seems to have married a girl just like the one that married dear old dad.  They are the only ones who feel kinship to their youthful avatars, and their performances are the most fleshed-in. They also deliver most of the film's needed laughs.  Overall -- and despite the huge physical upgrade of Jay(ke) Ryan playing former chubster, Ben, (Whose torch for Beverly hasn’t dimmed in three decades) – there’s no harmony within the group.  They don’t connect, which is one of the factors that makes the cheesy ‘power of friendship’ ending so unconvincing.  I could totally believe the group of kids from the first film could stand together and face their fears against the demonic clown, but not these guys, who seem to operate in their own bubbles, no matter how they are thrown together.

So, that ending, which I will not overly expose, is just a mess.  After feeling every minute of nearly three hours waiting for the big moment, it is wholly unsatisfying and frustrating.  The special effects in this film were nothing to write home about -- What the heck was that thing chasing Eddie?  Even worse, the scares felt much more gratuitously gross and stomach-turning, rather than deeply, under-the-skin creepy.  Of course, there are scenes repeated from the first film, such as the choice of the three “scary” doors, but they aren’t updated with any sort of wit or cleverness.  So, too, is the trouble with Pennywise. It’s not that Bill Skarsgård doesn’t do as great a job as he did with the clown in 2017; it’s that he has much less to do, and it’s nothing new or particularly interesting. 

Another issue is that the movie felt a bit like bait and switch to think that we might actually discover who or what Pennywise was:  What did he want, and who was this mysterious circus owner that keeps being referred to?  Pennywise’s origin is almost entirely disposable.  The actual explanation of what the clown is, is some cosmic mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t really make sense, neither is the natural question of why the creature wasn’t annihilated generations ago?  After so much time spent, it felt like the filmmakers wanted to rush through Pennywise’s story cos they couldn’t depict it well.  

For as uneven and unsatisfying as it is, I can’t quite tell if IT: CHAPTER 2 should actually have been the second of three parts:  It’s possible a third chapter might have made for a better screenplay, where revelations made more sense, scares could’ve been rendered better, and it also might’ve eliminated this 2-hour, 49-minute sit-a-thon.  Then again, being so far off the mark of the pitch-perfect performances and genuine frights of the original film, perhaps IT: CHAPTER 2 didn’t need to be made at all?

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

September 6th, 2019

 

 

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