Pen­ny­wise and, alas, pound fool­ish

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

The slick, numb­ingly re­lent­less new film ver­sion of “It,” adapted from the 1986 Stephen King best­seller and a lot rougher than the 1990 TV minis­eries, gets a few things right, in flashes of im­agery and in the per­for­mances. The open­ing scene is bru­tally ef­fec­tive, de­pict­ing the lit­tle Derry, Maine, res­i­dent Ge­orgie meeting his cruel pre­teen doom at the hands, and teeth, of the malev­o­lent su­per­nat­u­ral clown Pen­ny­wise, and then dragged at alarm­ingly high speed down into the sewer.

Direc­tor Andy Muschi­etti (born in Ar­gentina, pre­vi­ously known as An­dres Muschi­etti) knows the vis­ceral cin­e­matic value of some­thing wicked this way com­ing at you, very quickly, herky-jerky style. That was the key to his splen­did lit­tle 2008 short film “Mama,” which was then ex­panded into a 2013 fea­ture.

Go­ing into “It,” I hoped we’d get more of that vis­ually sug­ges­tive fright. It’s there in a few shots: the ini­tial glimpse of the floaters down be­low, for ex­am­ple, or the slide carousel run­ning amok and then springing Pen­ny­wise, played with for­mi­da­ble, un­blink­ing glee by Bill Skars­gard, off the pro­jec­tion screen and into the faces of the kids he’s try­ing to scare to death.

Those kids are played by some skill­ful young ac­tors, no­tably Jae­den Lieber­her (“St. Vin­cent”) as the an­guished pro­tag­o­nist Bill. In the pro­logue, his brother Ge­orgie (Jack­son Robert Scott) slips out of his life, leav­ing only a pud­dle of blood in the street. Bill’s makeshift gang known as “the loser’s club” con­sti­tutes a fa­mil­iar, King-style band of bul­lied, abused, marginal­ized teenagers. It’s “Stand by Me” with a killer clown, a shape-shift­ing, MPAA rat­ing: R (for vi­o­lence/hor­ror, bloody images and lan­guage) Run­ning time: 2:15 Opens: Thurs­day evening end­lessly ver­sa­tile scare mech­a­nism tai­lored to each char­ac­ter’s worst fears. Sophia Lil­lis plays Bev­erly, the boys’ lust ob­ject, whose in­ces­tu­ous fa­ther (Stephen Bo­gaert, al­ways fall­ing asleep in front of the TV like ev­ery bad par­ent in “It”) has pre­pared her for evil in many forms. Lil­lis and Lieber­her keep the emo­tional stakes as high and hon­est as pos­si­ble.

The screen­play cred­ited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fuku­naga (orig­i­nally set to di­rect) and Gary Dauber­man shaves King’s mas­sive book roughly in half. In this two-hour, 15-minute pic­ture, we’re deal­ing only with the kids (trans­planted from the 1950s to the 1980s), not their adult selves. The se­quel promised by the movie’s fi­nale will take place 27 years later.

That nar­ra­tive change works fine in prin­ci­ple. The larger ques­tion is one of rhythm and the di­min­ish­ing re­turns of one jump scare af­ter another. Direc­tor Muschi­etti’s film is af­flicted by a weird case of clutter; nearly ev­ery scene be­gins and ends the same way, with a slow build, a vul­ner­a­ble child in a cel­lar or an old, dark house, a vi­o­lent, bloody con­fronta­tion (ei­ther in the ev­ery­day bul­ly­ing se­quences, which are psy­chot­i­cally vi­cious, or in the Pen­ny­wise ap­pear­ances) lead­ing up to a KAAA-WHUMMMMMM!!!! sound ef­fect. Such fa­mil­iar tac­tics will likely en­sure a healthy box-of­fice re­turn (the movie’s ex­pected to make $70 mil­lion open­ing week­end), but the result plays like an Olympic hur­dles event, with a re­ally, re­ally long track.

King knows what he’s do­ing: Back in 1986, the year “Stand by Me” came out in the­aters, “It” put the whammy on mil­lions. He couldn’t lose. Sin­is­ter red bal­loons. The geyser of blood gush­ing up from the bath­room sink. Coul­ro­pho­bia, the fear of clowns, is money in the bank, as well as a tir­ing cliche, one the World Clown As­so­ci­a­tion takes se­ri­ously. From the as­so­ci­a­tion’s re­cent, sternly worded protest let­ter: “Peo­ple dressed as hor­ror clowns are not ‘real clowns.’ They are tak­ing some­thing in­no­cent and whole­some and per­vert­ing it to cre­ate fear in their au­di­ence.”

King was hardly the first to ex­ploit that fear fac­tor. The movie won’t be the last. While Pen­ny­wise has been given a fab­u­lous cos­tume (thanks to de­signer Janie Bryant), and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Chung-hoon Chung’s smudged in­te­ri­ors and not-quite-blue skies (un­til the fi­nal scene) do their part, what do we have here, re­ally? We have a story that feels not so much freshly imag­ined as du­ti­fully re­counted. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.

BROOKE PALMER/WARNER BROS. PIC­TURES

Bill Skars­gard por­trays the evil su­per­nat­u­ral clown Pen­ny­wise in the re­lent­lessly men­ac­ing film adap­ta­tion of Stephen King’s best-sell­ing novel.

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