When a running joke becomes a "Kick Me" sign: In It Chapter Two, James McAvoy stars as an author and screenwriter who's first seen on a Hollywood movie set, tweaking an adaptation of a horror opus that appears to be as long as It, Stephen King's cinder-block of a novel. At issue is the ending. Nobody likes his endings — not the studio, not the director who lied to him about liking it, not even his wife. It's a welcome bit of author-approved self-deprecation from King, whose endings have often been chaotic, and a little comic insulation for the film itself, which proceeds to wrap up the story in a tidy 169 minutes. That's enough time to space out multiple callbacks to the joke and make it seem fresh every time.
Yet It Chapter Two does still botch the ending, mostly by repeating the mistakes of the first chapter and taking too long to do it. Cleaving King's novel neatly in half, director Andy Muschietti has followed the same group of friends as 'tweens, when they were tormented by the evil Pennywise the clown in Derry, Maine, and now 27 years later as middle-aged adults, when they're summoned back for a final showdown. Though Muschietti's 2017 It had the virtues of a rich working-class setting and an ensemble that recalled the profane misfits of Stand By Me, Pennywise's M.O. is to confront all seven of them with a realization of their worst nightmare. This became a grind.
Though the ranks have thinned somewhat for the sequel, the formula more or less repeats itself: All the surviving members of the Losers Club are once again confronted by a revived and emboldened Pennywise, who turns the horrors of past and present into hellish echo chamber that only they can quiet. But this time, their experiences have morphed into a needlessly complicated mythology that slows the film's wind-up considerably, even after it goes through the hard labor of bringing so many characters back together. The first It brought a robust blockbuster maximalism to the horror genre, and the sequel, like many blockbuster franchises, starts to list from all the baggage.
With Pennywise terrorizing Derry once more 27 years after they vanquished him, the Losers Club follows through on a pact to reunite should the clown ever come back, though most of them have pushed their childhoods (and friendships) to the deepest recesses of their memories. Only Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in town all those years and he's the one who summons five of the others back home, including author Bill (James McAvoy), stand-up comic Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), fat-kid-turned-handsome-architect Ben (Jay Ryan), and Beverly (Jessica Chastain), whose troubled childhood is perpetuated by an abusive spouse. When they convene at a Chinese restaurant, all the memories they'd suppressed, good and bad, come flooding back.
The good news is, Mike has spent the intervening years learning how to defeat Pennywise, but the bad news is that all of them have to split up and gather personal "artifacts" for a Native American ritual that will hopefully dispel the clown. It takes a full hour to get to the artifact search, which is the weakest stretch of It Chapter Two, because Muschietti and his digital effects crew are recycling the first film on a larger scale, with monsters that look like tacky computer simulations of Evil Dead II and The Thing. By the time Muschietti gets to the grand guignol finale, he's exhausted the audience.
Much like the first part, the film does better in the downtime when the cast is together and bouncing one-liners off each other. (Hader gets most of the laughs, but the grown-up actors are all strong, uncanny versions of their younger selves.) Between the scares, It Chapter Two floats some real insight into how much childhood sets a course for the rest of a person's life, and the way humans create defense mechanisms to wall off parts of their past that are too painful to confront. King's book may be a beast, but Muschietti does his best to honor its scope, which isn't about building the biggest scare machine of his career so much as tangling its characters in a web of poverty, abuse, and domestic terror that they struggle to escape.
But at 1,138 pages, it's a lot of book. And over two chapters and nearly five hours, it's a lot of movie. Plus, endings are not anyone's forte. On that point, the film is refreshingly above board.