Like a lot of its fans – or rather, like a lot of It fans – I was really hoping that director Andy Muschietti's take on Stephen King's 1986 horror smash would be good. Just plain good was all I wanted, because when it comes to filmed adaptations of King's works, we admirers of the author's oeuvre know better than to hope for great. After all, what's the last one we got that truly earned that label? Stand by Me? Kubrick's The Shining? De Palma's Carrie, way back in 1976?
I'm consequently thrilled and astonished to say that, for my money, It actually is great. Maybe not by traditional standards of greatness, and maybe not wholly, given the somewhat repetitive narrative – a problem stemming from the source material – and protracted, CGI-heavy climax that sacrifices fright for action-flick mania. (The finale indicates that facing one's fears isn't quite as resonant as kicking the ever-loving crap out of them.) But Muschietti's achievement is most assuredly a great time, and succeeds as well as it does primarily because the film pulls off a high-risk trick that precious few works in this genre ever do: It manages to be just as funny as it is scary. It may even be funnier than it is scary, and It is awfully freakin' scary.
This isn't meant to slight Pennywise, that nightmarish, child-baiting dancing clown who, every 27 years, figuratively and literally feeds off terrified kids in the sleepy burg of Derry, Maine. As in King's book and its largely unfortunate 1990 mini-series, our introduction to Pennywise comes early, with his gentle coos to six-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) from the interior of a curbside storm drain. Yet regardless of your familiarity with poor Georgie's fate, Pennywise, as embodied by Bill Skarsgård, is creepy as hell. Granted, you can say the same of most clowns – even those without Pennywise's glowing yellow eyes, cracked forehead, and buck-toothed overbite suggesting a diseased Bugs Bunny. Skarsgård's fiendishly seductive readings, though, are what will likely haunt your dreams, whether the 27-year-old Swedish actor is mellifluously slaloming through vocal octaves or extending the word “it” into two bone-chilling syllables. (Kudos, too, to Skarsgård's makeup team, because if you want to purge the clown-induced trauma, I recommend a photo of the guy in real life – dude's a hottie.)
But this Pennywise, while sinister, is also perversely enjoyable, and not in the loony manner of Tim Curry's 1990 portrayal. After its nerve-racking and grisly prelude set in the fall of 1988, It shifts its events to the summer of 1989, where Pennywise confronts the seven adolescent members of the nerd-hero alliance The Losers Club: Georgie's grieving brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher); smart-aleck Richie (Finn Wolfhard); shy rabbi's son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff); motor-mouthed hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer); portly transfer student Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); damaged tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis, a young Amy Adams lookalike); and stoic Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the only black kid in a blindingly white town. (Considering its oddball-pals storyline and late-'80s update from the novel's late-'50s setting, comparisons to Netflix's Stranger Things are both inevitable and justified, especially with that series' Wolfhard among the ensemble.)
Each one of these youths has an individual run-in with Pennywise and some signifier of his malignancy, be it a dead relative, a drooling leper, an ambulatory painting, or an oddly talkative bathroom sink. And each of these sequences is dependably startling given the inventive, frequently off-kilter compositions by Muschietti – director of 2013's excellent Jessica Chastain freak-out Mama – and the cast's committed horror acting/reacting. Yet nearly throughout, I giggled as often as I flinched thanks to Skarsgård's ability to imbue a ferociously violent figure with off-putting playfulness. My wildly unexpected laughing out loud, meanwhile, was a testament to the talents of screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, who not only make It riotous in ways scare flicks almost never are, but in ways Stephen King's actual books never have been.
Some of the best jokes are visual nods at other genre works, and are pulled off, gloriously, in tandem with Muschietti's expert staging. Owen Teague's bully Patrick traversing the Derry sewers with a makeshift flamethrower uncannily mirrors Captain Dallas' death scene in the original Alien, and when that chatty sink unleashes its fury on Beverly, she's a dead ringer for King's (and De Palma's) Carrie White right after her pig's-blood mortification. More often than not, though, your cackles come from the tween boys' fantastically profane and filthy banter. Stand by Me, of course, is the standard-bearer for trash-talking youths in the King canon. But I'm not sure that even Gordie and his gang could match the velocity of clever retorts supplied here by Grazer's Eddie, or the unbridled hilarity of Wolfhard, whose Richie is forever making sexual boasts that the others have clearly learned to tune out. (When buckets of blood apparent to others prove invisible to Richie, he asks, “Can only virgins see this stuff?”) From the film's hysterical slams on New Kids on the Block to the cutting yet apt reference to red-headed Beverly as the group's Molly Ringwald, It's script remains shrewdly jovial despite the carnage; you tend to laugh even when – sometimes especially when – events are at their most wordlessly dramatic. In perhaps the finest such moment, Richie breaks an empty beer bottle to use as a shiv, and finds himself left with two inches of jagged bottle neck that he promptly discards.
There's plenty here, to be sure, that's unironically horrific, including the bullying techniques of Nicholas Hamilton's sociopath Henry Bowers – King does have an exquisite gift for creating terrifying teen tormentors – and every encounter between Beverly and her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert), which are the only scenes that aren't in any way fun. Still, I chuckled in delight and fear at so very much of It: the perfectly timed cut to a wide-eyed kitten, the only witness to an ugly demise; the slide-show detailing Derry's morbid history that turns into a Pennywise-helmed experimental short; the newly returned Georgie's eerie sing-song when telling his brother “You'll float, too!”; the elderly librarian in the pink dress who, out of focus and in the rear of the shot, stares at Ben with malevolent glee. (Every single adult in this landscape – all of them suggesting Diane Arbus subjects with terrible skin and more terrible secrets – is a figure from whom a kid should run screaming.)
And even when I wasn't chortling and/or shivering, Muschietti's central acting septet – led by the beautifully grave Lieberher and the supremely soulful Lillis – proves so engaging that I would've happily spent our 135 minutes in their company, killer clown or not. It's a shame that, barring flashbacks, they'll all likely be absent for the inevitable sequel. (King's novel follows The Losers Club as pre-teens and then as adults 27 years later; Muschietti's movie, I think wisely, restricts its action to the kids' collective experience.) But I'll be among the first in line for whatever title the follow-up goes with – It 2? It, Too? Its? – just to see if the exuberantly high spirits I felt at the end of this one can possibly be matched. Memo to Georgie: I floated, all right.
If we all eventually turn into our parents, Home Again suggests that its 30-year-old writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of It's Complicated writer/director Nancy Meyers, may have actually turned into her mother in utero. Those familiar with Meyers' output – her credits also including such cineplex sitcoms as The Intern, The Holiday, and Something's Gotta Give – certainly know the drill: perky, brightly lit comedies with brief patches of trouble and female leads who become wholly actualized in roughly two hours of screen time. What makes these formulaic works range from not bad to pretty great is their creator's Rolodex, because despite the overall banality, Meyers recruits the high-wattage likes of Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, and Diane Keaton to star in them. (For what it's worth, the male support for these formidable ladies has included Robert De Niro, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, and Jack Nicholson. Seriously, whose phone number does Meyers not have access to?) But even though Hallie Meyers-Shyer has enlisted, as Home Again's central character, an Oscar winner of her own in Reese Witherspoon, her writing/directing debut feels like a halting and unconvincing attempt to follow in her mother's footsteps; it's like a Nancy Meyers movie à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (The film repurposes Meyers' formula so completely, yet so cautiously, that you can practically hear an off-screen Meyers-Shyer asking, “Was that right, Mom …?” at the end of every scene.)
I'm pretty sure that detailing the narrative and its many subplots in full would take longer than actually witnessing them. So let's just simplify things by saying that Home Again primarily concerns a trio of upstart filmmakers who form a makeshift family with the newly separated Witherspoon and her two adorable daughters. Let's simplify things further by saying it's hogwash. As a filmmaker, Meyers has never really believed in villains; every character in her works, even the most misguided, is fundamentally decent. Hallie Meyers-Shyer takes that attitude a step further here, because everyone we meet – including Michael Sheen as Witherspoon's soon-to-be ex, Lake Bell as a blasé socialite, and the clueless Hollywood sharks in their power suits – is tres adorbs. You'd think the prospect of a newly separated 40-year-old inviting three 20-somethings – one of whom she's sleeping with – to live with her and her kids might yield some drama, or some awkwardness, or tension of some kind. But even at its most downbeat, the film, with its twinkly score and studio-sitcom lighting and handy solutions to all life's problems, is relentlessly chipper in ways that don't feel at all connected to reality. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there's some mild pleasure in this approach, and I appreciated the sunniness provided by Witherspoon, Sheen, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsy, and Candice Bergen, who adds necessary dryness as Witherspoon's mom. But while Meyers is a master of wish-fulfillment fantasy, Home Again merely suggests that her daughter may have a future career in cloning.