After 'The Big Sick', director Michael Showalter turns TV journalist Michael Ausiello's memoir into his next illness tearjerker.
February 09, 2023
History is written by the victors, or at least that's what the oft-used quote contends. In the same vein, tales about cancer are frequently focused on those fortunate enough not to experience their own malignant diagnosis. These are stories of grief-stricken folks struggling with watching a loved one face the disease, and potentially losing them, rather than accounts of what it's like to hear the words that no one ever wants to have said about their health. Spoiler Alert is one such narrative, first on the page and now on-screen starring The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as real-life TV journalist Michael Ausiello and Knock at the Cabin's Ben Aldridge as his photographer husband Kit Cowan. Ausiello penned the printed memoir, which is honest, poignant and never blissfully rose-hued — but the fact that director Michael Showalter's latest big-screen illness drama, following the authentic and sincere The Big Sick, shortens the autobiography's full outcome-revealing title says plenty about this sweet but formulaic tear-jerker.
No matter how you've been touched by cancer, or haven't, it's impossible not to spot the template beneath weepies about sickness. Trading in tragedy but also hope, these flicks weather heartbreak while dreaming of a happy ending even when they know one won't come — and it's to Spoiler Alert's detriment that the film teases in that direction to tug at heartstrings. Scripted not by ex-TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly writer-turned-TVLine founder Ausiello himself, but A Million Little Things' David Marshall Grant and Savage Love columnist Dan Savage, this is a picture that keeps things largely routine and simplistic rather than deep as a result. Indeed, when it gets welcomely thorny — when it feels specific to Ausiello and Cowan's 13-year-relationship, laying bare its early awkwardness and many imperfections rather than squeezing the pair's lives into the usual cancer-tainted romantic-drama pattern — it's a richer movie.
More comfortable interacting with the world by watching the small screen than physically dancing through it — or dancing at all — Michael only meets Kit because a colleague tells him to ditch the Fear Factor listicle he's been assigned to hit up jock night at a gay bar instead. And, he needs more encouraging to even contemplate flirting; busting out Knight Rider references aren't the kind of banter that love at first sight is made of. One issue here, and throughout: Parsons' casting. His presence acts as a nicely winking joke given that he's a big TV star playing a TV-obsessed writer, but the movie also feels far too reluctant to tinker with or stretch its lead's established sitcom persona. Although Parsons isn't playing Sheldon Cooper playing Michael Ausiello, the actor's most famous character to-date casts a shadow over a film it shouldn't, especially since this is Michael and Kit's true story.
Spoiler Alert begins before that initial encounter, with Michael first imagining his upbringing as a laugh track-accompanied 80s comedy called The Ausiellos. These scenes recur, designed to ground Michael's personality and coping mechanisms in his childhood, when he lost his mother to cancer and escaped into soap operas — but despite Showalter's comedy pedigree, including as a co-writer and star of Wet Hot American Summer and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, they're clumsy. What the sitcom segments show, too, is that Spoiler Alert is beholden to a formula for most of its running time and yet also better when it hones in on its characters over cute quirks even while staying oh-so-standard. Being detailed will always triumph over going broad, something that Showalter demonstrated with The Big Sick; of course, his latest also plays too easily and familiarly as a companion piece to that hit.
Here's a tidbit that can only be real, and is: Michael's apartment filled with more vintage Smurfs memorabilia than you're ever likely to see elsewhere, aka why he's apprehensive about bringing Kit home when things start clicking. (Ausiello's IRL collection was used.) The toys don't scare off his date like they might most, but Spoiler Alert sees the ups as well as the downs as weeks turn into months and years, Kit is dismissive of Michael's career, their differing levels of self-confidence causes distance, their varying wants cause rifts, each has their own takes on monogamy and therapy sessions become the norm. While Showalter and company don't dive particularly far into any of the above, they're still among Spoiler Alert's most resonant moments. Those, and whenever Sally Field (who led Showalter's Hello, My Name Is Doris in 2015) and Bill Irwin (The Dropout) appear as Kit's parents Marilyn and Bob, who he needs to come out to.
That said, when Spoiler Alert kicks into illness mode, actively endeavouring to get the waterworks flowing, it still sparks the emotional response it's so forcefully seeking. It's also impossible not to be moved by the couple's plight, straightforward and eager to tick the predictable weepie boxes as the film clearly is. Unsurprisingly, there's greater emphasis placed on Michael's experiences by Kit's side than Kit's. Audiences are asked to empathise more with caring for and confronting a possible future without the one they love, because that's Ausiello's tale, over being the person whose existence faces its end. Even in a movie that's careful about not airbrushing away anyone's flaws — Michael's included — that's where Aldridge's charm, warmth and soul does crucial heavy lifting to make Kit more than a bystander in his own life-or-death ordeal.
In addition to being a romance about a fated love, plus a drama about sickness, Spoiler Alert is a Christmas movie. When it's making star-led mainstream LGBTQIA+ films, Hollywood is currently head over heels for queer features that tie into the holidays, as Happiest Season and Bros also do. All three take a clearcut setup and attempt to make it their own, just with added Yuletide touches; spoiler alert: this life-to-page-to-screen effort is the least of the trio. The festive trimmings say plenty about Spoiler Alert as well, actually. Under the tree or stuffed in stockings, everything looks similar when packaged in jolly paper, after all. More often than not — and spanning its tinsel-decked scenes and its cancer narrative alike — Ausiello and Cowan's very real story becomes the glossily shot movie equivalent of a cookie-cutter wrapped-up gift.
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