Michael Ausiello‘s 2017 memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies in the End, gets the cinematic treatment at the hands of The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, who’s working from a script adapted by David Marshall Grant and noted sex and relationship columnist Dan Savage. The brutally sad story chronicles the 14-year relationship between the author (played by Jim Parsons) and his boyfriend-turned-husband, photographer Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge), culminating with the latter’s terminal illness and death.
Sorry… the ending is right there in the title.
That device is purposeful, as Ausiello no doubt how difficult to stomach this tale is, and believed that being honest about it upfront would soften the blow. It does not, and this difficult-to-watch film, as well-meaning as it is, becomes almost impossible to recommend to mainstream audiences.
As noted, Parsons plays Michael, a shy, self-described dweeb who is disturbingly obsessed with the Smurfs while working for TV Guide sometime in the early 2000s. One day at a bar, he improbably hooks up with the dashingly handsome Christopher (“Kit” for short) who is into nerds and inexplicably falls for Michael. That sort of Cinderella love story or Beauty and the Beast romance is plausible enough, at least in a cinematic context (this is a true story, after all), and more than sufficient to create two likable characters whom one can easily cheer for.
This being the turn of the century, Michael worries about affection in public and being gay bashed, even in New York City. Meanwhile, Kit is not out to his conservative parents, played by Sally Field and Bill Irwin. Michael has body dysmorphia issues (what gay man in NYC doesn’t?) and Kit has commitment issues. The two go on dates, share intimate moments (though the movie is frustratingly neutered of most sexuality), and eventually start living together. Later on, the couple grows distant, and eventually, infidelity, therapy, and a trial separation ensue — that is until a horrifying diagnosis upends everything in their lives.
From a certain perspective, one could see Spoiler Alert as an important landmark in LGBT/queer cinema. Like Bros or Fire Island earlier this year, this movie represents another step forward in telling stories from gay perspectives that have traditionally been told only from straight ones. To achieve full equality, we must tell the funny rom-coms, the tragic love stories, and everything in between. From another perspective, of course, gay love stories with sad endings brought on not by homophobia but by life itself aren’t necessarily all that new either — the recent Stanley Tucci–Colin Firth movie Supernova quickly comes to mind. Perhaps the good news is that we don’t really have to understand these stories from the perspective of the characters’ sexual orientation, even though that facet features prominently considering the context surrounding them.
Spoiler Alert aspires to be, in the end, not much more than a deeply personal, perhaps cathartic love poem penned under tragic circumstances. The film is certainly effective as far as that goes, but it is far from perfect, even in that regard. For starters, Jim Parsons looks nearly 15 years too old — not just for his scene partner, but to believably pull off the younger version of Michael that he’s playing at the movie’s outset. It is incredibly frustrating that a film that is so makeup-dependent, not just to convey Parsons’ age, but also Kit’s illness, disappoints on that front, but it’s possible that makeup artist Etzel Ecleston just didn’t have much money to work with, as it seems as though most of the budget went towards the film’s art direction. Indeed, Art Director Annie Simeone has fun decorating the pretty, gay apartments that Michael and Kit amble between (as well as the incredibly amusing, Smurf-stuffed abode that Michael inhabits before moving in with Kit) but the critical below-the-line feature needed to make this film entirely effective — the makeup — appears to have been neglected.
There are other problems with how Spoiler Alert talks about Michael himself. As a TV writer, he views his life as a sitcom, for the most part. Persistent scenes that resemble a mix of Married… with Children and Growing Pains episodes are sprinkled throughout the film’s runtime in an attempt to fill in the story of Michael’s childhood, including his mom’s own terminal illness, the bullying he suffered as a chubby gay kid, and the dreams and aspirations that kept him afloat throughout those tough times. Of course, everyone has their own defense mechanisms to keep their childhood demons at bay, but when these pretty sad memories are accompanied by a laugh track, it creates a troubling dissonance.
Laughter, to be sure, can be a good antidote or a defense mechanism, but it is unconvincing in Spoiler Alert, which is unapologetically sad at every turn. Perhaps the point, as with its title, was to try to soften the blow of how viciously sad this story becomes, but it isn’t always effective, and sometimes distracts from the impact of such scenes.
However, despite some jarring tonal shifts, Spoiler Alert works precisely because of the reason it was made — the personal nature of the story. Sally Field, in particular, is perfect for this kind of sad family drama, and she delivers as Kit’s mother, while Parsons plays Michael with genuine sincerity and an Eeyore-like sense of melancholy that fits the character well. Despite the significant disparity between Parsons and Aldridge’s ages and looks, the two share a touching, believable chemistry, and their banter flows easily and feels natural. As phony as some of the flashbacks and fake sitcom scenes feel, the present-day moments are all too real and emotional.
This critic cannot in good conscience strongly urge anyone to seek out this movie — it is the holidays, after all, and time for a little cheer. But if you’re hungry for stories about real life — which really sucks sometimes — this ill-fated romance delivers a touching story about how it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. But spoiler alert… be prepared to bring a box of tissues to the theater. You’re gonna need ’em.
Spoiler Alert is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Focus Features.