Friday 13 September 2019

Kill your darlings: "It: Chapter Two"

It became clear, upon the closing-credit revelation that 2017's first It movie was in fact to be known as It: Chapter One, that Warner Bros. were determined to milk Stephen King's cash clown for all it might be worth. It: Chapter One's $700m box-office haul was such that the studio has had precisely zero qualms about releasing It: Chapter Two at eleven minutes shy of three hours, and that fact alone would be enough to indicate that the system is still mired in a crisis of storytelling - that judiciousness and selectivity have been replaced by an idea of giving fans what they want at whatever length. (It enters the multiplex in the wake of extended cuts of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far from Home, and a director's cut of Midsommar, which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.) It: Chapter One, set in 1989, was styled as a nostalgic coming-of-age tale, which explained why so much of it looked indistinguishable from teenage sleepover fare. It: Chapter Two shifts ahead to 2016, as the now grown-up Losers' Club return to small-town Maine, variously traumatised, to confront the ghoulish Pennywise and demons beside. It has its good points: returning director Andy Muschietti demonstrates a wacko skill for setpieces, and it's been very classily cast. It also, however, trails a lot of baggage that hasn't been especially well packed in the process of adaptation: it meanders into areas that don't feel particularly urgent or relevant, and feels terribly ungainly even when it isn't dragging its feet. It may all have played out far more elegantly on the page.

It is, in many ways, a film composed in the image of its inspiration. It's a doorstopper of a movie, assembled by fanboys who cannot bear to reach for the red pencil or the trimming shears; it has to sprawl in a bid to accommodate not just multiple characters but a variety of impulses that cannot finally be reconciled. It: Chapter Two wants to play to kids and grown-ups simultaneously; it gestures towards being a serious meditation on trauma, that motor for so many 21st century narratives, yet it can't resist covering the sites of that trauma in ooky-booky funhouses. It knows that long stretches of introspection where stunted, fragile human beings work through their issues aren't the kind of blockbuster escapism punters now gravitate towards on a Saturday night, so it keeps rerouting everybody towards setpieces that aim for the disturbing, sometimes get there, but which more often than not undercut their own effects with self-satisfied, smirking payoffs. (It seems significant that two of the Losers' Club have grown up to become a hack writer and a hack comic.) It occupies so much space that it even starts to tessellate with what I guess we now have to call the Marvelisation of Hollywood: the bloated running time born of indifferent exposition, the dispiriting air of thespwaste, the winking cameo from the creative prime mover, the final tag-team face-off against an apparently invincible big bad.

It has, however, none of the MCU's machine-tooled professionalism, and here's where It gets interesting and revealing. (It is, if nothing else, the film that explains why Warners' DC movies have been such a violently mixed bag.) Its uncertainty of tone - veering in the course of a single scene from Cronenbergian body horror to the stalest of comedy bits - is diverting for a while, confounding thereafter, and eventually somewhat exhausting; it's a big-budget horror movie that feels both postmodern and haphazard-bordering-on-hapless, like a Scream made by dumbos. It's certainly not much of a vehicle for the actors, who after their initial reunion (around a Chinese restaurant's lazy Susan that cleverly chimes with group-therapy circles) get split up and forgotten about in turn, and see their efforts to dig deeper into their characters' neuroses undermined by a camera keener to land upon the next punchline. It falls to Bill Hader, arguably the most versatile actor currently working, to make the most of these cheap yuks; he will have better writers in his career than Gary Dauberman (who's kept himself busy churning out WB's Annabelle bunkum), but here at least is someone with the flexibility to hang onto a malfunctioning fairground ride such as this as it threatens to break away from its moorings and careen through Screens Six, Seven and Eight. It is, however, a curious thing to witness performers of the calibre of James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain being yanked around by plot mechanics: here is the kind of passivity that only follows from the dangling of big paycheques.

It heads towards anticlimax, bolstered (as much of the film is) by Paul D. Austerberry's superior production design. Even when the Losers' Club reassert themselves, it involves not much more than namecalling in a spooky old property: Muschietti has basically spent two years chasing us a long way round some haunted houses with a combination of sticks and stones. It strikes me that, however many gazillions of dollars the new movie takes, it's the 1990 miniseries that will endure as the superior adaptation of the book: workmanlike and hobbled by the standards and practices of US network television as it was, it was far more self-contained, made for a clearly defined audience by creatives who'd been forced to resolve some of the tensions Muschietti's movies simply splurge across the screen. It wasn't caught pandering to teenagers, as these movies are, and might thus retain the illicit charge of a forbidden text. (It also had Tim Curry, a grown man who made Pennywise so much more unnerving than Bill Skarsgård's toothy goofball.) It: Chapters One and Two are closer to a carnival that pitches its tents in your backyard, and barely stops barking: even the most committed spectators are going to wind up too tired to run away with it. It may just stand as a prominent example of what happens when producers and executive producers turn their backs, offer no notes and cancel the test screenings, confident they have a hit on their hands, but it doesn't feel directed so much as catapulted into our line of vision. It generates a kind of energy that will just about sustain you through 170 minutes, but it is, finally, far too messy to be in any way commendable.

It: Chapter Two is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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