This past weekend, I saw a 2½-hour movie about a bunch of social outcasts (mostly boys with one girl) who bonded when they were young, calling themselves The Losers. They reunite decades later after tragedy strikes. I’m referring, of course, to Chhichhore, the Indian dramedy that carries such striking parallels to It Chapter Two, based on the Stephen King novel. If you pointed a gun at me and forced me to watch one of those films again, I’d think that was a weird and messed-up thing for you to do, but I’d also pick the Indian film, because this box-office champion has all its predecessor’s flaws and screws up almost everything the original had right.
Picking up 27 years after the events of the first film, a grown-up Mike Hanlen (Isaiah Mustafa) sees a cluster of murders in the town of Derry, Maine and decides that Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) has somehow returned to prey on the townsfolk. The other members of The Losers all left town as adults, with Bill (James McAvoy) enjoying great success as a Stephen King-like famous horror novelist and Richie (Bill Hader) as a standup comic, but they took an oath to return if the clown ever came back. Their resolve to kill him permanently is strengthened by Beverly (Jessica Chastain), who has foreseen short lives and nasty deaths in all their futures if they don’t.
When I review Joker, I’ll tell you why scary clown movies don’t do much for me, but both this and the original seem to have the wrong end of the stick. In the first film, we saw young Beverly (Sophia Lillis) as a 14-year-old girl who went home from school every afternoon and wondered whether her father was going to rape her. I mean, that’s real terror. Yet somehow It found that shape-shifting demon clown more interesting. This movie has Pennywise as the embodiment of these adults’ fears left over from their childhood traumas, and that’s fine, but that’s dealt with in the lamest possible way. When Beverly goes back to her childhood apartment, she’s chased by a giant hideous old woman with sharp teeth. Surely her father reappearing to her would have been more fearsome to her and us.
The Losers’ loved ones and professional obligations drop away once everyone’s in Derry, as no one bothers to check up on them, even though Bill is married to the lead actress (Jess Weixler) of a film adaptation of his work that’s in the middle of shooting and anxiously awaiting his rewrites. All the flashbacks involving the kid versions of these characters could have been lost, and I like Lillis and Jack Dylan Grazer are strong presences. Stray subplots are everywhere: The opening scene shows us the murder of a gay man (Xavier Dolan) by some Derry homophobes, and then we never hear anything about it — or its connection to Pennywise — again. The same goes for Bev’s marriage to a pathologically jealous husband who beats her with a belt. Pennywise eats several children here, and the Losers seem to be the only people who notice. This material is supposed to create a character-driven horror film, but director Andrés Muschietti treats these characters with criminal neglect, losing track of them for hours at a time.
No, he’s too busy spending the money from the film’s creature effects budget. This would be great if those creatures were scary, but when the Losers meet at a Chinese restaurant and creeping things hatch out of the fortune cookies, it’s just goofy rather than frightening. At least with the current Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the monsters are innovatively designed and tied to the story. The filmmakers here are just throwing things at the wall, and the hallucinations that Pennywise induces in his victims are kids’ stuff.
I felt sorry for these actors, except for Hader, who emerges unscathed by injecting some badly needed comic relief. (Why is everyone surprised that he can handle the heavier dramatic aspects of this character? If you’ve seen The Skeleton Twins, you know the Saturday Night Live alum can do more than be funny.) Multiple characters criticize Bill because the endings of his books are so bad — including a shopkeeper played by an uncredited Stephen King — but the joke only works if the movie comes up with a conclusion that is actually good. The Losers’ ultimate defeat of Pennywise is so sentimental and cliché-ridden that it serves as It Chapter Two’s crowning irony and damning self-indictment.
Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Skarsgård. Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Written by Gary Dauberman, based on Stephen King’s novel. Rated R.