Saturday, September 7, 2019

Send in the Clown: IT CHAPTER 2

It Chapter 2 has all the defects of its predecessor, but adds a considerable number of benefits, as well. The first half of Andy Muschietti’s handsome mixed-bag Stephen King adaptation took a story about adults reencountering a trauma from their past — the book slides back and forth between the origin of their fears and a present day confrontation with them — and told just the kids’ stuff. It was a grindingly mechanical and, for me, joyless experience. You could’ve set your watch by the predictable jump scares, while the surface-level discomfort and vaguely defined supernatural threats never gained any complexity or momentum. It was a procession of grotesque jolts delivered at a regular pace. Now, though, the sequel production shifts attention to the adult versions of those kids and finds itself immediately richer and more evocative in the process. It can’t help but add to its similarly-shaped funhouse collection of loud shocks and obvious shivers a layer of complexity and character the earlier lacked. It 2 becomes a melancholic creepy tale about returning to your cursed hometown long after you’ve forgotten whatever meaning it once held for you, about reconnecting with people you once knew to find you’ve grown apart. In both cases, it's a sad story about finding that, though you have something foundational binding you to places and people of your past, once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on. Still, they find power in remembering, and in forging new connections with old friends, despite, and maybe because, of their overlapping formative damage. In fact, reconciling past traumas with current selves just might save them all.

So here we have Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy and James Ransone and Jay Ryan and Bill Hader entering the frame instantly carrying the baggage of an encounter with evil and fear personified, but distantly, as a vague memory. (Key flashes back to the kid cast create a fine Proust-lite echoing.) The one friend who stayed (Isaiah Mustafa) calls them back to creepy little Derry, Maine — still weirdly underpopulated. It’s been nearly 30 years, and now once more there’s a killing spree from demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard, still really going for it, if given less to do this time around, more mascot than believable menace). They’re the only ones who discovered this truth. They thought they stopped it then. They better do it better now. It’s all fetch-quest, ancient-exposition nonsense dolled out just to get the plot going, a similar effects-heavy, mood-light factory dark ride of pneumatic jolts. But the production is sprawling and goofy, maybe not digging into the darkest of King’s implications, but certainly attuned to the terror — a hate crime kicks things off, and, later, a boy gets his head brutally squashed by a chomping monster mouth — as it eyes its ensemble with sympathy. It takes a roller coaster shape paced out so each disconnected episode in the middle — a fine apportionment of scares with each actor getting one set piece to call their own — gives everyone a nice loop-de-loop in center stage. Meanwhile Hader gets to run comic relief circles around every scene without shortchanging his big crying-jag moment at the end. It’s more relentless popcorn fun than a deep unease, a horror movie that deals with horrific moments without getting truly scary. But, a rambling, nearly-3-hour movie balanced between past and present, it gains a heft and a satisfaction the first half of this cinematic version deliberately withheld.

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