2022, PG-13, 112 min. Directed by Michael Showalter. Starring Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, Bill Irwin, Nikki M. James.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 9, 2022
Over the decades, many genres of cinema have been swept under the rug, only to occasionally resurface. Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to be singlehandedly saving the musical, while the Coen brothers kept the screwball comedy alive for decades. But the classic Hollywood tearjerker seems cursed as too cloying for modern sensibilities. Not so, counters the wonderfully emotionally manipulative Spoiler Alert.
Director Michael Showalter took a similar trip to the ER in his 2017 smash The Big Sick. Both films feature a true story about a complicated romance made even more complicated by a potentially lethal disease, but The Big Sick ultimately delivered a happy ending. As the full title of TV journalist Michael Ausiello's 2017 autobiography, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, lets slip, Spoiler Alert delivers no such soothing resolution. In 2015, Ausiello's husband, photographer Kit Cowan, died of a rare and aggressive form of neuroendocrine cancer that never responded to treatment – and Ausiello was at his bedside throughout the long, painful process of dying.
Spoiler Alert's title may drop everything from the colon on, but it's clear how this story ends, as it opens with Cowan (Aldridge) unconscious, taking his last breath in a hospital room, with Ausiello (Parsons) snuggled against him in a mix of devotion, acceptance, and despair.
Just as Showalter has already shown a deft hand at love and illness with The Big Sick, it seems fitting that the script for Spoiler Alert comes from sex and relationship columnist Dan Savage and, more particularly, A Million Little Things writer/producer David Marshall Grant, who originated the role of Roy Cohn's lover, Joe Pitt, in the original Broadway production of Angels in America. In that decade, it seemed impossible for a gay character to die in a drama except for from AIDS. It's absurd that a film about a loving couple who is split apart by a disease that isn't AIDS still seems a little revolutionary, in the same way that it was oddly revolutionary that Bill Eichner and Luke Macfarlane got to headline Bros, a studio rom-com.
What Savage and Grant have written is a tragic and sweet romance, a tearjerker in the vein of Love Story given extra poignancy by being based on a true story. It occasionally falls into tricksy conceits, not least in multicamera sitcom-style flashbacks to Ausiello's childhood as a TV-obsessed kid with a sick mother. Instead, Spoiler Alert is at its best when it's not afraid to be mawkish, sentimental, soppy, honest, and downright charming.
But, more importantly, it has Parsons and Aldridge. Love Story worked because Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal made the tragic romance between doomed Jenny and repressed Oliver spill out from the screen. In their tenderness, their bickering, their separation and their coming together, the duo imbues the story of Michael and Kit with a warming sentimentality. Aldridge meshes perfectly with a delightfully WASPish Field and Irwin as his parents, but also with Parsons, who sheathes the cutting wit for which he became known in favor of a gentler, more self-deprecating humor laced with the palpable fear that he'll never be loved this much or well again. When the end comes, the inevitable tears will be earned – not because it's a sad story, but because it's their sad story, and because of the way Showalter guides them through the 13 years of ups, downs, and lives well-loved.