‘Spoiler Alert’ Review: A Gay Couple Gets the ‘Big Sick’ Treatment in Funny-Sad Rom-ComNovember 28, 2022
As a film critic, I don’t watch much television. There simply isn’t time, what with all the new movies opening each week. As for the critics and columnists who cover television, I don’t know how they do it. How do these people — folks like Michael Ausiello, editor-in-chief of TVLine (owned by Variety parent company PMC) and author of “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” — manage to keep up with the sheer volume of new shows on TV, much less nurse a partner through a terminal battle with Stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer?
It’s a dream job, albeit a demanding one, for a boob tube-obsessed soul like Ausiello, though it was his private life that inspired his best piece of writing — and by extension, “The Big Sick” director Michael Showalter’s latest laugh-a-little/cry-a-little rom-com, based on Ausiello’s 2017 memoir. In “Spoiler Alert,” the writer’s big-screen avatar (embodied by small-screen star Jim Parsons) doesn’t watch much television either, leaving room to live and love — and also to learn from this unthinkable tragedy. Sure, Michael tunes in to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Monday nights, but he’s otherwise quite the opposite of the “born couch potato” the real-life writer calls himself.
The movie presents Michael’s childhood like the sitcoms he grew up watching, complete with phony living-room set and canned laugh track, but he otherwise participates in the real world, where he’s present for his partner Kit Cowan (played by Ben Aldridge) during the worst of his illness, not glued to the set or stuck writing episode recaps when Kit needs him most. Such dedication is profoundly touching, especially to LGBTQ audiences for whom — if “Bros” is to be believed — gay romantic comedies didn’t exist until two months ago (spoiler alert: they’ve been around for decades). And yet, such a straightforward approach doesn’t seem like the right answer for this character or his story.
“Spoiler Alert” is a strangely, stubbornly conventional treatment of Ausiello’s book, even when the script — written by David Marshall Grant and queer, tell-it-like-it-is relationship advice guru Dan Savage — aims for something more daring. I suspect the project was conceived and maybe even shot as a much edgier film, then test marketed and diluted to the diet soda version we get here.
Consider how banal most of Kit and Michael’s conversations come across. Kit watched “zero television” before they started dating, which keeps the zero-calorie pop-culture trivia to a minimum, and yet the couple isn’t much chattier than Kit’s “monosyllabic” roommate (Sadie Smith). The book is flip, irreverent and disarmingly familiar, like a one-sided conversation with your funniest gay friend. The movie removes the “The Hero Dies” subhead and withholds that information. From the opening scene, we know Kit winds up in the hospital, but we may well spend the rest hoping for his recovery. Zoe Kazan’s character pulled through in “The Big Sick,” after all, so why can’t Kit, folks may wonder? Because that would be all wrong, and yet, Showalter can’t help teasing the possibility.
You can feel Savage’s touch in several of the movie’s best scenes, like the first time Kit brings Michael back to his place, and the “FFK” (former fat kid) feels uncomfortable about removing his shirt. The monumental shift in gay acceptance of the past 20 years has happened alongside the explosion of pornography, which amplifies body shame and confidence issues for so many. “Spoiler Alert” is one of the only films to confront the toll this is taking. (This may just as likely be Grant’s influence, mind you. The co-writer, who is also an actor, plays the couple’s therapist.)
Later, when Michael finally allows Kit over to his apartment, we discover the reason he’s been reluctant for Kit to see it — a would-be deal-breaker for most guys that the script is sensitive enough to recognize as an unresolved dimension of his childhood trauma. The conversation that follows, in which both men admit to being scared, is another terrific moment, rhyming with a touching scene later in the movie, when Kit gets his cancer diagnosis. Throughout, “Spoiler Alert” shows a maturity toward modern relationships, whether straight or queer, that’s refreshing and instructive.
Unfortunately, too much of the movie simply doesn’t work. While plenty experienced at playing geeks, Parsons seems miscast, stuck giving supporting-actor energy in a big-screen leading role. It was clever getting a popular TV star to play Michael, who’s perhaps 30 when introduced, but Parsons looks older than Ausiello does today, and there’s a weird problem with the lighting where everyone (but especially him) seems buried beneath layers of bad makeup.
While the movie’s self-aware title lends itself to Brechtian touches, the director doesn’t go far enough in the Charlie Kaufman direction — or, as TV inspirations go, he stops far short of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” the groundbreaking ’80s sitcom that frequently broke the fourth wall. “Spoiler Alert” stumbles when attempting such tricks, as in Michael’s moving farewell to Kit, when the camera pulls back to reveal the crew.
This is the emotional climax of the film, but without the proper setup, it ruptures the sincerity established in the film’s best scenes, like the one where Kit comes out to his parents, played by Bill Irwin and Sally Field. Those two are terrific, if no match for Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in the director’s superior “The Big Sick.” Showalter should have committed more to the postmodern approach of Ausiello’s book. As it is, the Shirley MacLaine-inspired hospital meltdown just goes to show how this tearjerker can’t touch a classic like “Terms of Endearment” (even if that movie was made by a guy who cut his teeth on TV).
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