The tragicomedy/romance film nails the wonder of new love and the inevitability of relationship pain.
While they say that love is eternal, eventually, even the greatest of love stories come to an end. Marriage vows foretell the reality of “to death do us part.” It’s an inevitability rarely explored in cinema, and even then, only in schmaltzy melodramatic weepers. Fortunately, Michael Showalter’s Spoiler Alert is free of schmaltz. Instead, the film deftly explores the process of a couple dealing with a terminal illness amid all the usual messiness of a real relationship.
Based on the book “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words” by TV journalist Michael Ausiello, Spoiler Alert explores the relationship between Michael (Jim Parsons) and Kit Conway (Ben Aldridge). The pair, at first, seem a mismatched duo. Michael is a writer for TV Guide, nerdy and insecure. Kit is a photographer with hip friends and a hot body. Despite their differences, the pair hit it off, eventually forming a relationship. They are the perfect couple for thirteen years until their differing lifestyles finally put a strain on their relationship. That strain leads to living apart during a trial separation.
Months into the new arrangement, Kit begins to experience severe gastrointestinal pain. A biopsy reveals he has a rare and aggressive form of neuroendocrine cancer. Determined not to let Kit go through this ordeal alone, Michael takes his former romantic partner back to their once shared apartment. Together they experience the ups and downs of cancer treatment. And, eventually, they face Kit’s death.
If you haven’t dealt with a loved one’s chronic illness, it’s hard to understand how traumatizing the process is. The uncertainty, the grasping for hope wherever you can find it, the gradual realization that your worst fear is coming true. It’s intense, and Spoiler Alert isn’t afraid to sit with that intensity.
Parsons and Aldridge’s performances expertly manage this maelstrom of mixed emotions. At first glance, Parson’s Michael is pretty similar to other characters he’s known for playing: nerdy, neurotic, and socially awkward. If the portrayal stayed there, it would rapidly grow annoying. However, Parsons finds a tenderness in Michael that gives him an endearing quality. His final monologue to Kit is genuinely touching.
[Ben] Aldrige’s portrayal of Kit is phenomenal.
Aldrige’s portrayal of Kit is phenomenal, seamlessly transitioning from hopeful to depressed to resigned and, eventually, accepting of his illness. A particularly affecting scene occurs after he receives his diagnosis. He and Michael go to lunch where things seem eerily typical. Kit doesn’t even seem particularly upset. However, after he takes Michael’s picture, a hallmark of their relationship, he slowly breaks down, yielding to the overwhelming reality.
A fantastic supporting cast bolsters Parsons and Aldridge’s performances, particularly Kit’s parents. Bill Irwin plays Kit’s dad, Bob, with an affable charm and warmth. However, Sally Field steals the show as Kit’s mother, Marilyn.
Marilyn is your typical nosy mother, abrasive but caring, with a brashness that makes almost each of her scenes hilarious. Field’s performance culminates in a captivating scene where Marilyn and Michael attempt to discuss Kit’s newly announced diagnosis. Instead of talking about the obvious, she rants about a woman who cheated her in an over-sixty age group triathlon. However, it’s clear she’s working out her feelings about Kit’s impending death. The scene is equally heartbreaking and humorous, and one can’t help but draw comparisons to Fields’ iconic monologue in Steel Magnolias.
While the acting keeps things grounded, Spoiler Alert isn’t afraid to delve into the fantastic. After all, Michael is a TV journalist, so he often processes his life in terms of a television show. Childhood flashbacks unroll as an 80s TV sitcom featuring Tara Summers as Michael’s mother. These flashbacks let us see some of the wit of co-writer Dan Savage (who wrote the script with David Marshall Grant). Savage’s “voice”–familiar to many thanks to his podcast–informs Michael’s narration, as well.
However, while these meta scenes are enjoyable, they largely disappear as a plot devise once Kit’s illness progresses, only to reappear again near the end. While likely done to keep the tone serious, it is somewhat jarring to have an integral narrative plot device dropped so suddenly.
Something the movie continues to deploy without regard to the tone is product placement. Brand mentions from the likes of Cosi, eBay, and Diet Coke pepper the film. To be fair, their appearances feel less like endorsements than natural aspects of living in the world, especially given how deeply Michael’s job is embedded in pop culture. Still, it’s so pervasive that it sometimes felt like a commentary that was perhaps too subtle for most, this writer included, to detect. At others, it derailed the reality of an otherwise emotionally resonant experience.
What makes Spoiler Alert real isn’t that Kit eventually succumbs to his disease but that it depicts his death as more than a simple tragedy.
2022 was a good year for mainstream films that centers the queer experience with queer people behind and in front of the camera. Like Fire Island and Bros, Spoiler Alert feels true to life because it was written by and stars gay men. But while the latter movies feed into a fantasy, Spoiler Alert occupies a space closer to reality. Because love, real love, is more than playful banter and hot sex. It’s also seeing each other at our worst and weakest. It’s giving a relationship a try, even though you know that it all ends one way or another.
What makes Spoiler Alert real isn’t that Kit eventually succumbs to his disease but that it depicts his death as more than a simple tragedy. Death is not just the end of the story but a transition into something new. Because as schmaltzy as this sounds, while a relationship may end in the physical sense, it never really ends in our hearts.
Spoiler Alert is celebrating with love and wrestling with mortality in theatres now.