Throughout the crawling duration of It Chapter Two—all two hours and 50 minutes of it—I felt like I was being taken for a ride by a driver who was wearing a blindfold. This movie is so meandering, so stuffed with easily excisable scenes whose revelations wick off with the arrival of the next fit-for-the-cutting-room-floor vignette, it’s as though everyone made this all up as they went along. What a strange effect for an adaptation of a legendary Stephen King book to have.
You may remember the events of the film that preceded this, 2017's It (which like this one was directed by Andy Muschietti), but the characters do not. The kids of the Losers Club who survived the first round of jump scares and teeth-baring from killer clown Pennywise are now all grown up, 27 years later, and summoned back to their hometown of Derry, Maine, by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the sole Loser who stayed behind. He catches wind of the locust-like return of the formerly dormant clown who terrorized him and his childhood clique and calls each one to help defeat Pennywise once and for all (because they did such a good job last time?). Initially, they don’t remember much of their childhood, for the further you get from Derry, the fuzzier your recollection of it is.
Here, you may wonder why this handful of former friends would bother to return to a place they don’t even remember to face what certainly feels like an unspecified doom, but for every question you may have, It has an amorphous concept on which to meditate. Fear’s a big one—it paralyzes and manifests in Pennywise. Besides that, there are a lot of vague monologues about the nature of memory that function more like excuses for bringing everyone back (including us in the audience) than explanations for what’s actually going on here. “Memory, it’s a funny thing,” says a Loser in voiceover during the movie’s early moments. “People want to believe they are what they choose to remember. The good stuff. The moments. Places. The people we all hold onto. But sometimes, sometimes we are what we wish we could forget.” That’s hard to argue with, and I’m not sure they needed to bust out the clown with a shark’s jaw to prove this rather basic point about selective memory and the erasure of trauma.
I liked the first movie until I didn’t—in my review of it, I wrote, “The more It explains, the less sense it makes.” That’s still true, and Chapter Two is a worse movie for heaping on explanation. Here, more is lesser. Chapter Two explores the Pennywise mythology by connecting it to Native American folklore. It reaches back into each character’s past during a sagging middle section that finds each roughly rendered Loser individually finding a childhood relic that they’ll later throw in a bucket to help kill the clown. (For a movie about a reunion, the Losers Club members spend so much time apart.) It shows us even more scenes from their childhood—flashbacks to memories that we didn’t witness the first time around. I cannot imagine being so invested in this universe as to want more of the first movie in the second movie, but that’s not even the biggest problem with these scenes. When they involve more spooking by Pennywise, you know the kid will survive the scene by virtue of the fact that you were just watching a version of this character as an adult. The stakes are low as Chapter Two just stands there, shuffling its clown shoes.
If the first movie left an untidy pile of loose ends, Chapter Two is a junkyard. This is a movie that has no sense of its rules. Pennywise toys with his victims like a cat who’d rather make a toy out of the mouse in her clutches than a meal; he seems to be only as strong as their fear of him, but he’s also able to murder a small girl who exhibits no fear of him at all when she encounters him under bleachers at a ball game and he offers to get rid of the facial birthmark that’s been harshing her mellow. (The child’s existential crisis is set up in an earlier scene, which is a lot of screentime to devote to a port wine stain.)
A freakout in a Chinese restaurant that finds the table covered in copious black sludge and visually ingenious creatures like an insect with a babydoll head and an eyeball with propulsive tentacles that reminded me of a goth Occy from The Snorks, evaporates when an employee barges into a dining room where the Losers Club hallucinate. There’s no mess left, not a drop of sludge. See? It was all make-believe. Later, when another character gets vomited on by a corpse in a similar hallucination that takes place in the basement of a pharmacy, he’s still covered in crud when he gets home. Pennywise is omniscient, and yet when he has the Losers Club cornered in a cave during the movie’s climax, they’re able to slip out of a chamber without him realizing it. This could be a subtle sign that he’s losing power, or yet another indication that no one quite knows exactly what they’re doing. There’s no good reason for me to suspect anything but the latter.
Of course, horror movies have a long history of playing fast and loose with coherence, and expecting excellence from It Chapter Two is a more foolish idea than anything contained in this extremely dumb movie. What makes the laziness intolerable here is the conviction behind the movie of importance and meaning. For indication, you need to look no further than the bloated runtime (before this movie, it never would have been conceivable that a fantasy-slasher with b-movie DNA would ever dare stretching toward the three-hour mark), but there’s also the aforementioned dead-end philosophizing. Somberness, tender framing, and cinematography with a small-town grandeur straight out of the ’90s all frequently clash with the rather hammy acting across the board; when the filmmaking instead enables the melodrama via slow zooms and Dutch angles, tone becomes treacle. (Don’t believe what you may have read about Bill Hader’s tour de force here. He’s merely competent in an incompetent movie. He’s much better in Barry.)
The current social imperative for art to comment on and offer solutions for society’s ills is gladly taken up by It Chapter Two—or at least its director devised some talking points for the press cycle that suggest as much. Muschietti told AFP that Donald Trump “does exactly what the clown does, you know?... The clown is trying to divide the Losers all the time, to turn them against them(selves) and make them weaker. That’s how he conquers, he tries to conquer them and destroy them.” Donald Trump, you see, is like a mean clown—wouldn’t you like to watch three hours of oblique musing on that? Muschietti also said that an early scene that depicts a gay-bashing was useful for making a movie that is “connected to the times that we live in.” The scene concludes with the half-alive gay victim (played by director Xavier Dolan) being consumed by Pennywise, which is obviously not at all connected to the times we live in, but I can’t think of a move that’s more 2019 than attempting to argue the social consciousness and import of a scene that ends with a demon clown devouring the limp gay man in his arms. Like the red balloons that portend Pennywise’s presence, Muschietti and his movie are full of hot air.
It is currently playing in theaters as of today, September 6.