This sequel will enrage a certain breed of Stephen King fan. In his late thirties, Richie Tozier discovers he’s glad to be gay.
A quick catchup for those thinking, “I’m delighted for Richie Tozier, but who the heck is he?”
As in King’s 1986 novel, Richie is a short-sighted loud-mouth. As a kid, he belongs to a gang of self-styled Losers, from a small town in Maine who set out to defeat a supernatural killer clown. Richie may not be the leader of the gang (that would be stuttering Bill), but he gets the funniest lines. In It: Chapter One, he’s played by charismatic Stranger Things’ actor Finn Wolfhard. Released in 2017, It was the most profitable horror movie of all time. Suffice to say, for the last two years Richie’s been a semi-major cultural icon.
Due to a range of factors, some of them problematic (but more of that later), Richie now feels like the main event. And, even though King didn’t write Richie as gay, and the first movie didn’t even hint at his sexual orientation, almost everything about the character’s new identity and status works.
So, 27 years after the events in the first film, evil Pennywise the clown has come out of hibernation and all but insists on a rematch with the gang who, with one exception, have all left their home town of Derry and become what the world would describe as successful.
When the friends meet up, it’s increasingly obvious that TV stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader; ferociously nuanced) has a secret. Thanks to a poignant flashback with Wolfhard, as well as a wry and crisply surreal set piece involving Derry’s macho, axe-wielding town mascot, we realise this cynical blowhard has been living a lie for years.
Like King’s novel, the film begins with the death of openly gay, wannabe novelist Adrian Mellon, beaten to a pulp by homophobic thugs and then gobbled up by the aforementioned clown. What’s new is how up close and personal the hate crime feels.
It’s brought to our attention that Adrian (Xavier Dolan) is asthmatic, as is another member of Richie’s gang, Eddie (James Ransone). Eddie is unhappily married and doesn’t seem to know who, or what, he is. But that doesn’t stop Richie from loving him. The film sets up a conflict: gay men can be out and proud (and vulnerable to attack). Or in the closet (and miserable and safe). The violence makes you wince. The sense of thwarted desire makes you swoon. I kid you not: this is the horror movie version of Brokeback Mountain.
Other surprises include a nifty cameo from Peter Bogdanovich (as a silkily ruthless director) and one from King himself.
The 71-year-old author plays the owner of a store that sells second hand goods. In the book, said proprietor is gay and wears a fishnet tee-shirt. Alas, as played by King, the man is sensibly dressed. He’s still good value, however, a creepy cross between Mick Jagger and John Major, all bright eyes and gloating spite. “You can afford it,” he says, repeatedly, to Bill (James McAvoy), now an acclaimed mystery writer with ties to Hollywood. Lots of people detest King (they view him as an overpaid member of the liberal elite). If this cameo is anything to go by, their resentment is something he “gets”.
Equally memorable is the bit where the gang’s only female, Beverly (Jessica Chastain; suitably sad and sepulchral), visits the flat where she grew up and has a weird encounter with an apparently sweet pensioner (Joan Gregson; excellent). The way Mrs Kersh suddenly does a jig in the shadows induces shudders. Like the shark’s fin in Jaws, the old woman’s goatish limbs are upsetting on a primal level.
Let’s not forget our champion evil-doer. As ever, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) has red hair and coquettish front teeth. In his finest moment here he grooms an insecure youngster, offering proof that a man can cry and cry and be a villain. It’s properly shocking because you understand why blemished little Victoria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) can’t tear herself away.
Am I saying It Chapter Two is flawless? Nope. We’re supposed to be caught up in the love triangle between Bill, Beverly and a newly skinny Ben (Jay Ryan). Said triangle never gets creates a joule of heat. Some ropey dialogue doesn’t help, but the real problem is Bill. In the book, he’s is a swirly, libidinous, utterly compelling mess. In the film, he’s a baffling blank. He’s got a new secret of his own (concerning his brother, Georgie) but as he dashes around you’ll be tempted to check your watch.
Meanwhile, Beverly’s flit from an abusive past relationship has an unnecessarily schlocky feel. She’s supposed to be an esteemed fashion designer. How come her house looks like the set of Roger Corman’s House of Usher?
Even more inconsistent is writer Gary Dauberman’s take on body fascism. Having established that gags about “fat” people are cheap, he serves up a lazy barb of his own. Says Richie to Eddie: “You’re braver than you think. You’re a man who married a woman four times his own body weight.”
The characters’ partners, by the way, are consistently short-changed. Bill’s Audra only gets one speech. Stanley’s wife barely figures, which actually weakens what should be a devastating moment early on.
In fact, the handling of the minor characters generally disappoints. It’s baddies (red-neck creeps) vs goodies (innocent urchins; proud Native Americans).
As for the CGI, long-tongued, leprous zombies, they get tedious really quickly. Director Andy Muschietti dreams of releasing a four hour cut. He must be mad. The film’s already too long.
It Chapter Two isn’t better than Chapter One. It’s certainly not scarier. Here’s the thing, though: when it counts, it’s every bit as thrilling. Muschietti and his team have made a bold, fitfully stylish, frequently shocking film that somehow does justice to King’s mad, and very hard to pin down, novel.
King means what he doesn’t say. In the book, Bill, faced by a room full of angry lefties, thinks, “Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics...culture...aren’t those natural ingredients in any story...if it’s told well? Can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”
Here’s a story that no one could have seen coming, a story that no other blockbuster in 2019 wanted to tell. It’s all about Richie. The atypical avenger of It Chapter Two, Tozier is a lover and a fighter, a real clown and the joker in this year’s pack.