A beautifully rendered gay love story that tugs on both the heartstrings, as well as your funny bone, to ensure that smiles and waterworks flow by the credits? Why it might just be a Christmas miracle…
Although it doesn’t climb onto a soapbox in the same way as the year’s other big mainstream queer romance, Michael Showalter‘s adaptation of TV critic Michael Ausiello‘s autobiography ‘Spoiler Alert’ is still a Big. Queer. Text. The story of a decade-plus romance between two New York men that spells out its unhappy ending in both the title and its opening scene is unequivocally a three-hanky weepie. But more than that: it’s a love story, as Jim Parsons‘ voice-over narration tells us several times.
And how welcome it is.
The film (thankfully) isn’t a period piece or an AIDS drama (Ben Aldridge‘s Kit eventually dies of cancer), which immediately distinguishes it from many of its queer film predecessors. Despite adhering to the structure of straight terminal illness romance films like Love Story, The Fault in Our Stars or A Walk to Remember, Spoiler Alert still tackles issues that are specific to the gay community, such as open relationships and being comfortable with your sexual orientation and body.
Spoiler Alert is the story of TV Critic Michael Ausiello (Parsons)’s romance with photographic Kit, complete with meet-cute, coming-out to Kit’s parents (Sally Field and Bob Irwin) and relationship hurdles when the fairytale doesn’t go quite as planned.
The cleverest visual conceit of the film is how Ausiello recontextualizes his childhood through the lens of a classic 80s sitcom. Young Michael (Brody Caines) was raised by a single mother (Tara Summers) with whom he bonded over soaps and other TV shows. This not only helped him survive fatphobic and homophobic bullying as a pre-teen, but dictated his future career and, most importantly, contributed to how he defined and conceived of what it means to be loved.
The (re)creation of these sitcom flashbacks are pitch perfect, particularly in the instances when horrible things are happening to young Michael but the canned laugh track continues unabated. It’s a smart stylistic choice by Showalter and screenwriters Dan Savage (Savage Love) and David Marshall Grant (Brothers & Sisters, Nashville) because it understands that TV is escapist and that it creates shared communal experiences – for Michael and for the audience.
These sequences offer insight into the character, particularly how and why he grew up to be the slightly geeky, introverted Gilmore Girls fan who obsessively collects Smurfs and struggles to find a place in the body-image obsessed world of New York’s gay culture.
Of course this is a still doomed romance narrative. The title of Ausiello’s book is more forthright than the film, which omits the addendum “the hero dies” (the title Spoiler Alert is arguably one of the film’s weakest elements because it doesn’t make it clear what it is about, nor does it offer a clear narrative hook).
Despite opting for a less clear title, Savage and Marshall Grant’s script still establish Kit’s death immediately via voice-over and opening shots of Kit (Aldridge) in the hospital. The narrative then jumps back ~13 years to chronicle their relationship in mostly chronicle order.
What’s charming about the film, aside from the easygoing chemistry between Parsons and Aldridge (both out gay actors), is how simply it presents a romantic queer relationship. The obligatory coming out scene with Kit’s parents is played for laughs when Marilyn (Field) becomes histrionic that Kit didn’t tell confide in her earlier. Later on, the editing provides a hearty chuckle when, at Christmas dinner with friends, it’s revealed that the seemingly perfect couple of more than a decade has actually separated and are living in two different houses.
Kit’s illness (re)unites the couple and brings forth the inevitable teary scenes. On an early date, Kit takes pictures of body-image conscious Michael and when the scene is recreated following Kit’s terminal diagnosis and Kit breaks down crying, it’s quietly devastating. Both men’s feelings are clearly captured without the need for expository dialogue or a big speech, which only makes the emotional beat hit harder.
One only wishes that the climax, as Michael says his goodbye to Kit, was as effective. The intersection of Michael’s real life struggle and his TV fantasies result in a fantastical encounter that reframes his and Kit’s relationship. While it makes sense given Michael’s obsession with TV, this climactic interaction dramatically undercuts the emotional tension the whole film has been building towards. After inciting so many tearful moments, the finale effectively sidesteps the big cathartic cry the audience we’ve been anticipating for something more akin to a stylistic exercise.
It still works, but if there was ever a time to go BIG emotionally and really lean into the film’s three hanky weepy premise, this was it. And that simply doesn’t happen, which is a shame.
Despite this hiccup, it’s significant that Spoiler Alert is a mainstream queer romance being released in theaters during the financially lucrative holiday season. It remains to be seen if the film will suffer the same box office woes as Bros, but as a more traditionally accessible queer melodrama/romance, Spoiler Alert seems like a safer bet.
Be ready to laugh, swoon and, yes, cry. 4.5/5
Spoiler Alert is in theaters Friday, Dec 9