In the new film Spoiler Alert –starring Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge as two real life men whose marriage was cut tragically short by cancer– the main characters talk a lot, but the movie’s most resonate moments come when the couple, exhausted by illness, simply lie together, taking solace in the familiarity of each other’s embrace. Such moments will likely wring tears from movie audiences, and in turn make it easier to forgive a film with an undercooked screenplay and an oddly remote performance by Parsons.
Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and based on television journalist Michael Ausiello’s moving 2017 memoir, “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” the film opens with Michael (Parsons), recalling the night in 2001 when he met Kit Cowan (Aldridge) in a bar. A designer and photographer, Kit is outgoing and confident, two things no one has ever claimed about Michael, a TV obsessive with a collection of Smurf dolls and toys filling his apartment. (Ausiello’s actual Smurf collection is used in the film.) Kit eventually sees the collection in a scene that allows screenwriters David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage to explore Michael’s feelings about the death of his mother from cancer when he was a teen. In turn, it allows Kit to explain why he can’t stop thinking about Michael, even though the two make no sense on paper.
Kit is “premium cable to my network sitcom” Michael declares in one of the many TV references that charm in Ausiello’s book, but land with a self-conscious thud in the film. Parsons, of course, starred in The Big Bang Theory and screenwriter Grant has written for TV shows and acted in many himself, including the culture-shaking “gay” episode of thirtysomething in 1989. So why does so little about Michael’s TV journalist life ring true? Clunkier still are flashbacks to Michael’s childhood, seen as a garish 1990s sitcom, one where he’s a lonely kid with a deceased father and a doting mother who comforts him when kids pick on him for being overweight. These sequences, which ruin the flow of the movie, are just plain bad.
As an adult, Michael is lean, but carries the scars of being, as he tells Kit the first time they make love, a “FFF—Former Fat Kid”. Spoiler Alert is nearly as chaste as a Hallmark movie, which is fine since Parsons and Aldridge have little to no sexual chemistry, but the filmmakers deserve credit for bringing body shame out of the dark and into the light. While love can be healing, the screenwriters seem stuck in the notion of Michael as forever wounded, always tense, and too often joyless, even in Kit and Michael’s best and happiest days.
Parson just repeats the same emotional beats, which is baffling since he did such powerful, nuanced work in the film versions of The Normal Heart and The Boys in the Band. He’s misconceived the character, and Showalter hasn’t helped him find a way back to center. It’s a shame, particularly since Aldridge, who played the “Arsehole Guy” on Fleabag, is such a warm presence.
When Kit gets sick, Parsons and company rise to the occasion, and it’s as if all involved were feeling the real Kit’s presence as they filmed the story’s final scenes. Michael takes his partner and his parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin) for a beach weekend in New Jersey. A frail Kit is relaxed and happy and Michael shoots video of him blowing bubbles with a child’s toy. Moviegoers who stick around for the closing credits of Spoiler Alert will see a bit of the original video, giving the real man whose life touched so many an authentic gaze that the film itself lacks.
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