It Chapter Two can’t decide whether it wants to chase after Stephen King or Steven Spielberg. Sure, to a certain extent those two media monoliths occasionally cross paths at the intersection of serial adventure and emotional nostalgia. However, there’s a disconnect when the slick visual polish and swelling musical score is applied to painful emotional trauma and some truly vicious horror imagery, a disconnect at the most basic level of filmic construction. Such a juxtaposition can certainly work if there is some sort of powerful irony at play, but It Chapter Two is about as square-jawed and earnest as any film you’ll see in 2019, to the degree that it feels like its loving gloss is intended to smooth the edges and blunt the impact of its seedy content.
That same divide was present in 2017’s It, which excised the childhood section of King’s novel to offer a coming-of-age origin story about the manifestations of fear as an ever-present curse. The film played out in much the same manner as Chapter Two, with a group of outcasts engaging in a golden-hued swashbuckling adventure that was spiked with cripplingly dark thematic implications and punctuated with truly grisly violence. It didn’t always work perfectly, but at least the glow in the former film made sense because it was motivated by the coming-of-age underpinnings of the story. Kids on an odyssey of discovery is a classic trope, and Itspun that well, playing on the heightened emotions of adolescence and keying on ingrained fear as the one to rule them all.
On the other hand, It Chapter Two focuses awkwardly on adults who still act like children, leading them on a journey that feels like a reiteration of the previous film, one that reaches the same conclusions point-by-point. The notion of grown-ups still dragging the baggage of their childhood is certainly valid, but these people had to have experienced some minor quirks in their personas somewhere in the intervening years, right? Quirks that could, perhaps, justify the continuation of their stories? In the universe of this film, these characters have lived 27 years since the events of the first without much evidence of any sort of growth or self-actualization, basically so they can reconnect in their hometown (which itself hasn’t evolved, either, still looking like a Rockwellian cover of The Saturday Evening Post) and proceed on a rerun adventure to vanquish the evil, fear-preying clown they also vanquished 27 years earlier.
That clown, Pennywise, is still a frightening high point in this film, played with delirious glee by Bill Skarsgard and presented as the ideal manifestation of humanity’s clown fear epidemic. But this time around the shape shifter is operating under a more rigid set of guidelines that hinders the perceived chaos of his ever-presence, the result of a labyrinthine mystical backstory that undercuts the film’s more humane themes for the purpose of mechanistic plotting. The other characters suffer for precisely the same reason – their perceived lack of growth is due to an apparent blocking out of their childhood adventures, part of a demonic curse that apparently centers solely on their hometown (cutting off any perceived universality of shared childhood trauma), so obviously “The Losers” must return home…and do the same spooky stuff they did the first time around.
With that thankless job, the actors do their best, and are good when the movie allows them to be. Bill Hader shines the brightest, handed what could’ve been an easy comic relief role and finding the pathos behind the wisecracks. Everyone else seems to be performing a vital function for the screenplay rather than finding a character – even the brilliant Jessica Chastain, whose Beverly Marsh suffers in Chapter Two because the story doesn’t find much worth in her beyond being an abuse victim and object of boy affection, both of which were more clearly actualized in the former film. I know that this film is about people who are stuck in the past, but I didn’t expect the film itself to be stuck in the past.
All of that is to say that these formidable adult actors perform a three-hour version of The Goonies, except in this version our heroes are suppressing immense trauma and abuse, and there’s a demonic clown that eats children before our very eyes. Which is…fine, I suppose, under certain circumstances, if the material has the right attitude to sustain that kind of balance. But It Chapter Two very much wants to be a wholesome adventure picture, Spielbergian from its broad whimsy to its lugubrious flashbacks to some of its monster jump-scares to even its score, which is like John Williams Lite. And truthfully, in that regard, it’s quite well-crafted, if often imitative. But in terms of squarely facing the depth of its implications, of navigating adult trauma that’s been suppressed over generations? This ain’t It.