‘Spoiler Alert’ is a touching but impersonal rom-com

Spoiler Alert
Ben Aldridge stars as Kit Cowan and Jim Parsons as Michael Ausiello in “Spoiler Alert.”
Focus Features/Linda Källérus

Movies like Michael Showalter’s “Spoiler Alert” usually skip the theater and go straight to streaming these days. Therefore, it seems appropriate that its protagonist Michael Ausielo (Jim Parsons) is a TV critic. As subtext,  “Spoiler Alert” addresses gay men’s fascination with pop culture that doesn’t directly depict us but speaks to us anyway. When Michael starts a relationship, he won’t invite his new boyfriend Kit (Ben Aldredge) to his apartment in Jersey City because Smurf memorabilia covers every available surface. He doesn’t talk much about television, but he clearly has a passionate relationship with it. He even imagines his past in the form of a sitcom, with artificial lighting, obvious sets, and an ironic laugh track.

Michael is a real person, and “Spoiler Alert” is adapted from his memoir about his life with Kit. (In an odd irony, the film drops the book’s subtitle, which would actually be a spoiler.) It begins with Kit in the hospital, then flashes back to their past. Michael works very hard as a journalist, unable to live closer to New York than Jersey City. When he and Kit meet at a gay club, they’re simultaneously attracted and hesitant. While the time frame is slightly hazy, they become lovers and move in together. Through a montage of Christmas cards, the film passes over 13 years. When it picks up again, their relationship is on the rocks. They don’t want to separate, but they’re seeing a couple’s therapist to try and piece it together. The fact that they’re  off in their own worlds, with Kit constantly stoned and former teetotaler Michael drinking a bottle of wine a night, is telling. But when Kit learns that he has cancer, Michael proves himself a devoted caretaker.

“Spoiler Alert” flirts with melodrama, but I’d love to see what Todd Haynes or Pedro Almodovar would have done with this story. (Haynes’ short “Dottie Gets Spanked” imagines a queer boy’s obsessive fixation on a TV show.) Showalter’s direction is fine, but rather anonymous. The film works best at its most straightforward. It capably sketches in the early stages of Michael and Kit’s relationship. The characters’ differences are depicted smartly. It never idealizes their relationship, which probably would have fallen apart if Kit hadn’t gotten sick. While the scene in which Kit comes out to his parents is a bit Gay 101, their warmth and acceptance is refreshing. Once we get beyond that point, the story takes Michael and Kit’s life as openly gay men for granted.  “Spoiler Alert” feels like it was made for middle-aged gay men to watch with our parents on Netflix.

While I haven’t read Michael’s book, critic Peter Debruge calls it “flip, irreverent and disarmingly familiar, like a one-sided conversation with your funniest gay friend.” That wild sense of humor didn’t survive the process of adaptation, while touches of trauma linger in the background. The young Michael was tormented for his weight; he complains about getting called “a fat fudgepacker” at school. The first time he and Kit consider having sex, he resists taking his shirt off, racing to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. Although he’s now thin, he still carries the trauma of being a “FFK” (“formerly fat kid”). But apparently, this passes as soon as he and Kit become intimate. His identification with television shows suggests a degree of dissociation that the film won’t go further than hinting at.

In both real life and this movie, Michael edits the website TV Line and conducts interviews with actors. Kit has no interest in television, although the two eventually make a habit of watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” weekly. In a scene near the end, Michael imagines Kit’s illness as part of a TV medical drama, where his partner is an actor who can change costumes and wash off his makeup. The implications of this sudden dip into postmodern reflexivity — “Spoiler Alert” is indeed a narrative film, and just as we’re shown, it was shot on a set with crew standing outside camera range and a healthy actor playing a man near death — are taken no further. “Spoiler Alert” is a warm, touching rom-com, but a strangely impersonal one. Although gay advice columnist Dan Savage and David Marshall Grant, who also plays the therapist, wrote the script, Michael’s own voice is sorely missing.

“Spoiler Alert” | Directed by Michael Showalter | Focus Features | Opens Dec. 2nd at the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, AMC Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center

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