Director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror classic is a hodgepodge of tones and genres that begs the question, “Who is the audience for this movie?”
“Who is the audience for this movie?”
That’s the question unfortunate viewers will be asking themselves before they drift into an uncomfortable slumber over their popcorn. Muschietti and his creative team are tasked with capturing the cinematic essence of King’s sprawling novel about disaffected kids, terrifying demons, and inter-dimensional portals. Though he wisely abandons all of King’s Macroverse mumbo jumbo, Muschietti (Mama, 2013) falls into the tonally awkward trap of combining wacky kid shenanigans reminiscent of The Goonies with a sewer-dwelling murder machine.
Even more frustrating is that Muschietti actually susses out the cinematic core of this convoluted mess. He understands that Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård falling epically short of Tim Curry’s 1990 miniseries portrayal) is the physical manifestation of adolescent angst and insecurity. Muschietti sets about establishing “The Losers’ Club;” a ragtag gang of bully fodder that figures out the truth behind their seemingly cursed hometown of Derry, Maine. Armed with only their bicycles and chutzpah, they must unite to conquer their fears and kill the creepy clown. It’s the perfect setup for a PG-13 adventure laced with genuine menace and self-realization.
That’s where things go horribly, horribly wrong.
Each member of The Losers’ Club is given only one agonizing note to play. "Stuttering Bill" Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is the defiant leader, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the fat kid, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is the vulgar jokester, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the manic hypochondriac, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is the timid Jewish kid, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the black outsider, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the irresistible tomboy they all lust over. The screenwriters should have dispensed with the formality of names and just addressed each character by their archetype.
The real shame of these lame characterizations is that Lieberher (Midnight Special, The Book of Henry) is capable of so much more. Easily the best young actor in Hollywood, Lieberher continues to flaunt an effortless strength and wisdom, coupled with a vulnerability that threatens to break him at any moment. Lillis, too, is a sassy spitfire that evokes memories of a young Nicole Kidman in 1983’s kiddie farce, BMX Bandits. The other young actors, not surprisingly, struggle to impart any personality into their roles. Grazer, in particular, seems to be channeling a hyperactive hybrid of Ben Stiller and Woody Allen. It’s just as annoying as the description implies.
The juvenile banter of the kids is jarringly juxtaposed by the creepy townies that haunt their footsteps. The leader of the local gang of bullies, Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), is unbelievably sadistic, at one point carving his initials into Ben’s stomach with a switchblade. This startling level of brutality clashes badly with the PG-13 exploits of The Losers’ Club, who spend their summer days swimming in the rock quarry and riding their bikes.
Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer (IMDB)
Even more disturbing are the pedophilic undertones surrounding Beverly and the amount of humiliation she endures as a result. Her lurid reputation around town as a pubescent sex kitten draws the stares of adult men and the scorn of her female classmates, who dump liquid garbage onto her head as she cowers in a bathroom stall. She’s constantly thwarting the sexual advances of her own father, and one particularly icky scene finds a middle-aged creeper cooing that Beverly is the Lois Lane to his Clark Kent. Considering how tame the rest of It plays out, the sexual component surrounding Beverly feels excessive and exploitative.
Speaking of tame, let’s talk about the damn clown…
There are no scares in It. None. Think about how hard it is to make a clown not scary! The main problem is that Pennywise might be the most ineffective murderer in the history of murderers. He jumps, he chases, he concocts elaborate puzzles for the kids to navigate, but he struggles to deliver the coup de grâce. That’s pretty amazing, considering he can do anything. He can change shapes, he can impersonate anyone, he can possess people, he can stretch his mouth wider than a freaking python, and yet… he has a tough time actually murdering people. It’s hard to feel genuine fear when a horror movie sounds more false alarms than a low-battery smoke detector.
Which begs the question, once again, “Who is the audience for this movie?”
There isn’t enough murder and mayhem to satisfy horror fans looking for R-rated fun, but there’s too much ugliness and grime to deliver the kiddie adventure bubbling at the film’s thematic epicenter. Instead of making a clear choice between the two genres, Muschietti throws everything into the mix. The result is a bunch of shallow characters almost getting killed, almost having an adventure, and almost learning something. It would make for a frustrating viewing experience were the 2:15 running time and lethargic pacing not guaranteed to induce the aforementioned uncomfortable sleep.
It proves, once again, that adapting novels to the big screen is risky business. Making a proper adaptation demands not only finding the thematic guts of a novel (which Muschietti seems to have accomplished), but having the courage to twist those guts into a unique cinematic experience. On the latter count, It fails miserably. It’s an unfocused hodgepodge of ineffective scenes and conflicting tones that disintegrates into an unsatisfying pile of... blah.