IT is nonsense, and I mean that, if not in the nicest way possible, then certainly in a relatively nice way.
Stephen King had this uncanny ability to serve up an idea that sounded like it came from the most cocaine-addled of movie execs, shambling breathlessly into a conference room with blood-stained kleenex shoved up both nostrils and babbling out a half-baked premise. Honestly, an evil clown who eats children and turns into a spider, I mean really. But then he’d just sort of… write his way through it in a way that was logical, compelling, even meaningful.
IT, the late 2010s movie series directed by Andy Muschietti, does not have quite the same ability to find the meaningfulness in IT. In fact you can practically hear the wind whistling over the top of the gaping hole where some larger meaning should be. But it is Stephen King-esque in its ability to shamble through patently ridiculous material in a way that’s oddly compelling.
“Entertaining enough not to bore us” might sound like faint praise, but just to contextualize it, this a two-hour-and-50-minute movie. I firmly stand by my theory that films, the latest Scorsese or Barry Jenkins or whatever, should be allowed to be more than two hours, while movies, especially sequels to films about killer clowns and whatnot, should keep it to 110 minutes or less. And yet this one rarely drags. It’s not especially thought-provoking, but there is a kind of wonder that comes with realizing just how many insane logical leaps and narrative inconsistencies competent shooting can paper over. There don’t seem to be any rules to the IT universe, and yet it muddles through. Which is oddly liberating.
The gang’s all back from the last movie. Bill the stutterer, Bev, Specs, Big Mike… uh… Kev? Is there a Kev? Honestly, this story has way too many characters. It never bothered trimming them, which is exactly how you get 1100-page novels about scary clowns. But anyway, the film opens, for some reason, with a brutal hate crime attack on a gay couple at the Derry Carnival. In a story with a 27-year time shift, which saw the first movie update the original 50s setting of the book to the 1980s, this carnival scene is supposed to take place in present day, which is confusing, given the 80s bully tone of the whole thing. One of the gay guys even compares a bully’s hair to Meg Ryan. No matter, a gay man gets brutally beaten and tossed into a river, and this event is completely immaterial to the larger story except that Pennywise is apparently complicit somehow.
Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Losers Club who still lives in Derry, somehow knows this (it’s unclear how) and puts out the “PENNYWISE IS BACK” bat signal to the rest of the old crew. Stuttering Bill (James McAvoy) is now a novelist who can’t write good endings — a recurring meta joke on Stephen King. Bev (Jessica Chastain) is married to a rich guy who beats her. Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is now Richie Trashmouth, a stand-up comedian. Fat Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) who wrote poetry is now a hot guy who looks like he writes poetry†. Neurotic Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone, who played Ziggy in The Wire) is now a “risk analyst,” one of those cheesy movie jobs people seem to have whenever screenwriters need to convey that someone’s wound too tight. Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is weak and depressed.
Notice how it took me an entire paragraph just to list the main characters? That’s why this movie is almost three hours long. It’s defined by its too much-ness. And so many of the things Stephen King wrote have shifted meaning in the intervening years. In a story set in the 1950s, taking the form of a clown could conceivably help a bad guy lure children. In 2019, Pennywise the clown is just a scary guy masquerading as a famously scary thing, like Freddy Kreuger wearing a Freddy Kreuger mask. Meanwhile “group of outcast kids solving a mystery on bikes” is now quite possibly our tropiest of tropes. The initial theme, of a town’s dark secret of having looked the other way over pervasive child abuse, seems to have shifted. Now it’s a far duller riff on friendship.
IT Chapter 2 is like this rumbling ball of smooshed together fiction tropes — kids on bikes! bullies vs outcasts! conquering your fears! scary clowns! bad guys who drool! — that rapidly disintegrates as it speeds toward an ending. It’s the disintegration that makes it interesting (well, that and the competent staging and acting).
Everything we’ve been taught to assume about fiction turns out to be wrong in IT. We’ve been conditioned to believe that in big groups, each person has their own “thing.” Not so in IT, which has two loudmouths (Richie and Eddie), two Jewish guys (Stanley and Richie), parallel love stories (Bev and Ben, Bev and Bill), multiple characters whose secret is being gay, and one guy who just kind of sacrifices himself to make the story shorter. Characters’ gimmicks overlap and shift, as if the storyteller keeps forgetting as he goes along. It’s sloppy, sort of, though it also retains the charm of a six-year-old telling a nonsensical story where the passion is more important than the details. It has a human quality that this kind of film often lacks.
Back in his heyday, Stephen King would occasionally be accused of being a kind of “junk food novelist.” He wasn’t, but IT is junk food cinema. Though pretty well done, as far as junk food cinema goes. We crave it, rush through it, then sit back feeling queasy wondering what that was all about.
†Pointless aside warning here, but in the character of Ben Hanscom, the fat kid who grows up to be a heartthrob, I feel like Stephen King inadvertently predicted the life story of Jerry O’Connell, who played the Fat Kid in the movie adaptation of King’s Stand By Me and then grew up to marry a supermodel.