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It **

by Ruben Rosario

Haunted sewers are not the only things that stink in this uninspired, tonally jarring screen adaptation of Stephen King's second-longest novel. 

Is “it” worth $10? No 

“It,” Stephen King's sprawling chronicle about outcasts in a Maine town who confront an evil being at two different stages in their lives, arrives on the big screen with an “R” rating it flaunts at every turn and a conspicuous time period change that allows it to indulge in ‘80s nostalgia.

But while that conceptual combo might make a target audience conditioned to idealize both the text and its revised period, the results are lackluster and schlocky. There is a noticeable attempt to capture the prolific horror novelist's voice, his distinctive flavor, but the film fails at blending its disparate thematic elements into a cohesive whole. This long-awaited adaptation suffers from a severe multiple personality disorder.



The film, which is the first of two parts aiming to preserve as much of the novel's 1,138-page essence as possible, starts on a rainy afternoon in October 1988, decades away from the original's late-1950s setting. Bill (“The Book of Henry's” Jaeden Lieberher), a tween with a crippling stutter, makes a paper boat for his kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to play with outside. A rainwater current sends the boat into a storm drain and leads the younger sibling to come face to face with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, brother of Alexander and son of Stellan), a fire-engine-red-haired clown who seems to live in the sewer.

It's at this point that “It” literally bares its fangs, something it does early and often. If this all sounds eerily familiar, you may have caught the 1990 TV miniseries that, like this proposed two-film adaptation, chops the book into two halves and gets rid of the narrative that crosscuts between past and present. (The novel was originally published in 1986.) But the small screen incarnation was anchored by an iconic turn by Tim Curry, who knew when to turn on the charm and convincingly resembled an actual clown.

But Skarsgård, who's serviceable but not all that scary, lets the cat out of bag prematurely, something director Andrés Muschietti keeps doing throughout the film. He has crafted a flashy funhouse ride jerry-rigged for instant gratification. The best genre directors, however, know it's how you handle the “getting there” that makes the mayhem truly pay off.

But wait, Muschietti seems to say, this is very much a coming-of-age story as well. So it is. After Georgie's disappearance, the film jumps to the following summer and introduces us to the rest of the tweens destined to make up the Losers Club. Bespectacled Richie (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) is a motormouth wiseass, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is slumming through his Torah studies ahead of his bar mitzvah, and homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the sole African-American, is tormented by town bully Henry (Nicolas Hamilton).


Rounding out the group is pudgy new arrival Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who develops a crush on Beverly (Amy Adams lookalike Sophia Lillis). Their first scene together, on the last day of classes, is the first time “It” actually comes to life, and it hints at the film that might have been if the reins had been handed over to someone with a more subtle hand.

Muschietti strikes a parallel between Pennywise's terrorizing of these children, through vivid nightmarish visions, and the human monsters they have to deal with as outsiders. The problem here, and it's what ultimately sinks “It,” is that those moments unfold as if they were taking place on two different movies. For a sizable chunk of the running time, Muschietti's m.o. is a coming-of-age scene, followed by a Pennywise horror scene. Rinse, repeat. The aesthetic disparity lays bare where the helmer's priorities lie, and it's not with the Losers' emotional journey, Even sadder, the filmmaker clearly has his heart in the right place, but is unable to blend in his fancy CGI imagery with the rest of his self-consciously analog landscape. The jolts feel too calculated, the sound manipulation too over-the-top, the intrusive music score too much of a John Williams knockoff, and the end result is that the movie, try as it might, is simply not that scary. It's unnatural in all the wrong ways.

There's a potent exploration of victimization, the interplay between predator and prey, that's ripe for the taking in “It,” but Muschietti, working from a screenplay credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, is more interested in the physical threat the Losers face than the emotional toll the summer's events take on them. The creative team is also intent on using late-‘80s signifiers to lighten the mood, but these easy targets (New Kids on the Block, anyone?) just call attention to themselves. They're pointless detours, especially when they're inaccurate, such as a movie theater marquee advertising “Lethal Weapon 2,” an action film released on July 7th, 1989, weeks after the events depicted in the film.

The elaborate confrontations between the children and Pennywise reach their climactic moment inside the bowels of a decrepit old house, but by this point, the movie, clocking in at 135 minutes, has long worn out its welcome. The running time appears to make sense, and it gives breathing room to the Losers' banter, as well as a romantic triangle between Beverly and two of the boys, but the emphasis on life-and-death peril makes for one exhausting trip down memory lane.

“It” draws blood in all kinds of gory ways. It deals with adult themes in ways few films of its genre that involve minors does. But that maturity level does not extend behind the camera. F-bombs are all fine and dandy, but they don't automatically give you street cred, nor make your villains any more unsettling. Its ensemble cast makes a gallant effort, but this is one epic boogeyman tale that gets lost in the sewers.