IT finishes with a strong bite
Warning: There may be spoilers for book and movie(s) ahead.)
It's hard to objectively review IT: Chapter Two, considering that it is drawn from my favorite novel of all time. So buckle in, folks, this is going to be long.
I've always maintained that Stephen King's novels are best examined as a surface bugadeboo with something entirely other underneath. The Shining is his treatise on alcoholism and domestic violence, with a haunted hotel on the surface. Cujo is about unhappy marriage, from the seven-year itch to loveless abuse, with a rabid St. Bernard on the surface. Pet Sematary is about how we face death in American society (or don't), Under the Dome was his criticism of the Bush II administration, The Dead Zone questioned whether a political assassin could ever be right, Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game explored the impact of child sexual abuse, and The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption found dignity and even God behind prison bars.
None of it has to do with monsters, unless they are the monsters who walk among us.
IT is my favorite novel because when I read it, my mental vision takes me to the streets of Westfield, Mass. I lived there from ages seven to fourteen, so it is the place where childhood lives for me. That's about where the resemblance between Derry and Westfield stops, as it was a lovely town despite junior high, and as far as I know there were no shapechanging killer clowns.
Most people dismiss IT as the story of Pennywise, but like the rest of King's work, its inner story is something very different. It's about imagination, the rich and lustrous flavor of a child's imaginings that dim to a dull glow when they grow up. That's why the children were so strong when they faced It in 1955, and why their diminished numbers were able to defeat It in 1985.
The movies dispense with those themes for the most part, focusing a bit more on childhood friendship than imagination. Much was made of the changes made to the characters' backstories beyond the simple update to 1989. The hints of incestuous abuse from Bev's father are made explicit, and then added to poor Eddie and his mother (of which there is no hint in the book). Stan's backstory was filled out with more interesting creatures; I approved of making his father the town rabbi in what has to be the whitest, goyest town in Maine, but having Rabbi Dad be cold and dismissive feels unfair. Movies always try to amp things up, of course, but does everyone have to have terrible parents?
Which brings me to Mike Hanlon, one of the best characters in the book and the one served worst by Chapter 1. Book Mike had a stable, happy home life. He had parents who loved each other and loved him, who raised him well and paid attention to him, who cheered his successes and taught him how to survive the racism of their neighbors and the world beyond. They fought the battle so many working-class black families had to fight (and still do), and they did it with dignity and grace. Mike is the wonderful person that he is - bright, studious, curious, empathic - because of his parents.
Um, never mind. Because in Chapter 1, we find that instead Mike's parents died in a fire, and he's raised by an awful, abusive grandfather who imparts none of these qualities on him, forcing him to kill animals against his gentle nature. I spent whole portions of Chapter 1 with my jaw hanging open - why do this? Why replace the Hanlons with this horrible caricature of the too-strict black grandparent? And why take Mike's curious investigation of Derry history and give it to Ben, who already has his own skills and intricate backstory to contribute? It took Mike, a driving character behind the Loser's Club in the novel, and made him essentially background noise to the story of Chapter 1.
So I approached Chapter 2 with cautious optimism. That became foreboding when I read news stories alleging that Mike was to be degraded even further in the second half: Instead of being the town librarian who has carefully researched and interviewed the city's history to record the impact of Pennywise, Mike was to be a drug addict turning to heroin to deal with the traumas of fighting It. So it was stated in plain English by director Andy Muschietti after Chapter 1 came out.
Nice try, Master Director, but all the kids fought It and Bev in particular went floating in the deadlights. None of them turn to drugs, even though it would make sense, especially for Richie. The only one to fall into addiction is the black guy? Nice.
Fortunately, it seems that idea hit the cutting room floor. You can see its echoes, however. Isaiah Mustafa does an exceptional job with what must have been one of the hardest acting gigs ever: to begin filming under one premise of the character, and then have it yanked out from under you. In several scenes, especially earlier in the film, Mustafa appears to play Mike as high, speaking very quickly and falling all over his words. The movie attempts to pass it off as fear, but I read the interviews and I know where the script began. Any hint that Mike is an addict has been cut, and instead he just comes across as terrified (and living in the attic above the library for no clear reason specified).
So I give Muschietti props for listening to the screaming and coming to his realizations late. Did he change it because he realized it was a horrifically racist thing to write, or because he figured there would be protests overshadowing his movie? Only he knows for sure.
(Also, I have heard zero buzz about this plot development silently disappearing from the final cut of the film. Am I the only one who remembers?)
The only shadow remaining is when Pennywise is tormenting Mike late in the film, and shows him a headline accusing Mike's dead parents of being crackheads who burned themselves to death; in the final moments, we see the real headline, and they are simply local residents, not addicts at all. We know Pennywise uses psychological torment as well as physical threats to horrify his victims; with the clumsy edits, the headlines no longer make any sense at all. Likewise Pennywise taunts Mike with "I know your secret.... you're a madman." Well, no, he isn't. There are multiple problems with Mike, as has been widely discussed, but he's not crazy. It's a huge "huh?" moment during the final battle, and clearly it started with the now-excised drug abuse.
But I can't complain, because Mike is the driving force of the story as he takes over Chapter 2 - almost to a greater extent than the book. It's quite clear on the written page that while Mike brings them all back together again and brings them up to speed, he then cedes the reins to Bill, who had been their leader in childhood. This doesn't really happen in Chapter 2, as Bill is distracted again and again by Pennywise and attempts to go off alone - Mike must stay in charge because Bill never takes up his role as leader, which means Mike also bears the responsibility for the possible outcomes.
Other stories get short shrift: while I don't think we needed to meet Ben's bartender in Nebraska or Richie's angry manager, I feel cheated by the ninety seconds we see of Bev's husband, Tom. That story is much more detailed in the book and deserved to be there, as it was more than just "Bev married a dick like her father." That's too simplistic for what Book-Tom means for Bev and for the Losers. He beats the snot out of her, and she barely escapes with the help of a friend (also missing in action) who then pays drastically for her loyalty. Tom shows up in Derry, as does Bill's wife Audra, and they have a part to play in the fight against Pennywise.
Tom is the living embodiment of the Losers' Club's failure to escape their past, the walking example of all that was awful in their childhood and that they willingly kept - the damage Pennywise inflicted. For him to hit Bev a few times and she runs out the door does the story a disservice, as well as paying little attention to the psychological impact of domestic abuse.
But CultureGeek, the movie is already 17 years long!
Yes, it's a long, long, long movie. So I would have been happier with about 20 fewer minutes of Cthulu as imagined by Sam Raimi and replace them with actual character development. We don't spend a whole lot of time with Pennywise the Clown this round, as he's very busy turning into CGI tentacles and letting his variant other forms torment the Losers. I've never been all that fond of entrails and gross-out horror, so I can't say that Pennywise in his various forms scared me nearly as much as the old woman in Bev's childhood apartment. (Until she turned into Raimiesque CGI, mind you. She was hella scarier as a human.)
As I said when Chapter 1 came out: Bill Skarsgaard is not responsible for my complete lack of fear at Pennywise. It's not his fault. He did a fine job as envisioned... but that character design. It's the Bugs Bunny buck teeth and funky costume. I simply could not find him scary, not with the voice to match those goofy teeth. (The CGI teeth are another story.) Maybe it's because I saw the Tim Curry edition in 1990 and slept with the light on for a few nights. But the goofy face simply doesn't work for me. Curry needed no CGI to scare the bejesus out of me or my high school classmates, who carefully stepped around the stormdrains outside our school for a few days as the miniseries was running. Just in case.
If anything, Pennywise is less scary in this modern version, because the few times we do see It as the clown, It is attempting to lure a small child by guilting her into playing with him (a theme it repeats several times) or popping up in cheap jump scares. I can't be scared of the sobbing passive-aggressive Pennywise, folks.
The one moment where Pennywise is truly scary is in the inspired mirror maze sequence, which apparently was dreamed up by James McAvoy (Bill) and Muschietti. I will live with Bill refusing to take up his mantle of leadership because McAvoy simply knocks that scene out of the park.
The changes that are bringing the most chatter post-release involve Richie and Eddie. I feel that Eddie fares almost as poorly as Mike in the changes to his character, both as a child and as a man. Eddie is portrayed as being an angry, hard-cursing germophobe. They got one part right. But Eddie's talent that contributed to the group was his unerring ability to navigate in any situation - it is the "compass in his head" that helps them to survive the sewers. Beyond that he was gentle and shy, and Richie's best friend. Where did this perpetually angry man come from? He's so fiercely unlikable that we find ourselves wishing Pennywise would eat him and put him out of our misery.
Likewise Book-Richie was a smartass, the ADHD wisecracker whose mouth always got him into trouble. In the 1990 miniseries, they could not have chosen a better pairing of an exceedingly young Seth Green and the late great Harry Anderson to play Richie, and they did it perfectly. Anderson in particular ad-libbed a lot of his puns and wisecracks, and you got the real sense that he and Eddie were friends despite his jibes.
This movie's variation never stops to let Eddie and Richie actually be friends, or anything more. As children and as adults, Richie comes off like a jerk, saying mean, foul things to Eddie and Eddie returns with actual anger bordering on fury. It's hard to buy these people as the best of friends when they spend the entire movie being angry with each other. (And why, exactly, was Eddie's profession changed to a corporate raider who screams at traffic, instead of the limo service owner who can easily navigate in and out of Boston traffic, which is a supernatural feat in and of itself?)
Then, of course, there is Richie's secret.
There's no hint in the book that Richie is gay. In fact, he's quite decidedly not, and the 1990 miniseries doubles down and gives him a string of ex-wives. Eddie likewise has married, though he basically married Mom (and cute trick by having the same actress play Eddie's mom in the past and his wife in the present, but they lost all the points with repeated fat jokes, because we all know about fat women, amirite? Ugh).
I have often argued that movies have to stand separate from the source material, which is why "but in the comics..." will get you thrown out of my proverbial bar when we're talking superhero movies. And I really think it could have been an interesting twist to see Richie secretly gay... if it made any sense at all for him to be so deep in the closet in 2019. That actually would have been more comprehensible in the original 1985 novel or 1990 TV-movie, or if Richie had been in any other profession than show businesses. Really, "actor/comedian comes out as gay" would barely rate a squib in Entertainment Weekly, and so the movie fails to give us any kind of grounding or reasonable backstory for why this secret has a Capital S in Richie's life.
(Or why he treats the apparently object of his affections so abominably.)
This is a movie that opened with a gay-bashing murder, and it's as horrifying and awful to see as it is in the book. King wrote it based on a real gay-bashing murder in his area in the 1980s, and there has been much buzz about it. The book makes it clear that Derry is more viciously homophobic than most towns around it, tacitly blaming Pennywise's influence. But the movie barely connects that atmosphere with Richie - and nor should it, since Richie wouldn't care one iota what the people in his former hometown think of his orientation. Rani Baker goes into much greater detail on this than I can, since this review is already as long as the book and has taken an extra week to write, but suffice to say this whole subplot could have been done much, much better.
And yet it was lovely to visit my creepy not-hometown of Derry again, and when I could shut up my inner editor desperately clutching the 1004-page book to my chest, I enjoyed it. Stephen King's cameo had me rolling, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the original Young Ben from 1990, there are several other nods to the book, the miniseries and other King stories, and even a turtle nod.
But I needed less Clownthulu and more psychological torment, less confused half-editing and more friendship among my heroes. I wanted the history of Derry and the subtle ways Pennywise infused himself into the town, and really, would it have killed them to roll the Standpipe? It's just pixels.
I enjoyed it. But I'm not sure I'll be watching it over and over again, as I have the 1990 miniseries with Tim Curry and his merry band. We all still float down here.