Movie review: Gay couple face cancer battle together in bittersweet ‘Spoiler Alert’
In the summer and fall of 2022, “Bros” and “Fire Island” 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, who is known for his sex advice column “Savage Love” in the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, as well as his long-running podcast, “The 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 Michael Showalter, who has become a journeyman director across TV and film over the past few years, “Spoiler Alert” is aesthetically rather 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.
Showalter is not a cinematic stylist, per se, but more of a nuts-and-bolts filmmaker, managing tone and pace, though the visuals are not much to write home about. The meta TV moments make “Spoiler Alert” more interesting to watch, and help to illustrate our protagonist’s mindset, 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. Coupled with Sally Field, who plays his mother Marilyn, the pair bring a sincerity to their performances that provide the gut-punch to “Spoiler Alert” that will draw your tears. Despite the narrative elements that work to draw us out of the wreckage as 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.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug use and thematic elements)
Running time: 1:52
How to watch: In theaters Friday