Review: In ‘Spoiler Alert,’ the tears will flow despite the narrative gimmicks
In the summer and fall of 2022, “Fire Island” and “Bros” made inroads as high-profile gay rom-coms, queering the familiar genre. Now, arriving just in time for Christmas, we have “Spoiler Alert,” a heart-rending holiday weepie about two men in love, facing cancer together. Based on the memoir by TV journalist Michael Ausiello, “Spoiler Alert” tells the story of Ausiello’s marriage to Kit Cowan: how they fell in love and forged a partnership, with all the attendant struggles of a long-term relationship, and then walked together through Kit’s battle with a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer.
“The Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons plays Michael, the dweeby-cute TV nerd who writes for TV Guide and collects Smurfs paraphernalia, while English actor Ben Aldridge plays Kit, an undeniably hot aspiring photographer. One night, a co-worker drags Michael to “jock night” at a bar after work, where he locks eyes with Kit on the dance floor, and the rest is history.
The screenplay marks the feature screenwriting debut of Dan Savage, known for his sex advice column “Savage Love” in the Seattle alt-weekly the Stranger, as well as his long-running podcast, “Savage Lovecast.” Savage adapted Ausiello’s 2017 book with David Marshall Grant, and the screenplay maintains the grounded honesty that feels typical to Savage’s work, despite the sappy Hollywood romance trappings of the film.
Directed by TV and film veteran Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick,” “Lovebirds” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), “Spoiler Alert” is aesthetically unshowy, aside from a few meta moments meant to demonstrate how Michael copes with life’s challenges through media. The characters watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or “Felicity” for connection and comfort, and there’s also the matter of the Smurfs collection, with which a psychoanalyst could have a field day. Showalter also employs TV tropes to capture Michael’s childhood flashbacks to his mother’s own battle with cancer, shot and styled like a ‘90s family sitcom, complete with laugh track. During one particularly heart-wrenching moment, Showalter allows Michael to step out of his own grief to assert his TV journalist side, interviewing Kit as he would an actor on set.
The English actor is vaulting from the stage and TV into two major film roles: romantic tragicomedy ‘Spoiler Alert’ and horror thriller ‘Knock at the Cabin.’
Showalter is not a cinematic stylist, per se, but more of a nuts-and-bolts filmmaker, managing tone and pace. The meta TV moments make “Spoiler Alert” more interesting to watch, and help illustrate our protagonist’s mind-set, but you almost wish the filmmakers took the conceit further. There’s a challenge to balance this experimentation with the other goal of the film, which is to be a big, right-down-the-middle mainstream romance.
Though Parsons’ performance doesn’t always work, “Spoiler Alert” is a breakout role for Aldridge, who demonstrates his leading hunk potential as Kit, as well as his ability to break your heart. Along with Sally Field, who plays his mother Marilyn, the pair bring a sincerity to their performances that provide the gut-punch that will draw your tears. Despite the narrative elements that are part of Michael’s coping mechanisms, Aldridge and Field effectively salvage the emotional core of “Spoiler Alert,” bringing us back to the heart of the matter, and giving space to the feelings that should flow freely in a film like this. Spoiler alert: Don’t forget the tissues.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, for sexual content, drug use and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 2, AMC The Grove, Los Angeles; AMC Century City
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