‘Spoiler Alert’ review: A Cancer Rom-Com from the director of ‘The Big Sick’

As a film critic, I don’t watch TV much. There simply isn’t time, with all the new movies opening every week. As for the pundits and columnists who cover television, I don’t know how they do it. How do these people — like Michael Ausiello, editor-in-chief of TVLine (owned by parent company PMC Variety) and author of “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” — keep up with the sheer volume of new programming on TV, not to mention partner nurse through a final battle with adenocarcinoma? Stage 4 neuroendocrine?

It’s a dream job, albeit a difficult one, for a tube-obsessed soul like Ausiello, though it’s his private life that inspires his best writing — and thus, the latest laugh from “The Big Sick” director Michael Showalter -little/cry-a-little rom-com , based on Ausiello’s 2017 memoir. In “Spoiler Alert,” the writer’s big-screen avatar (embodied by small-screen star Jim Parsons) doesn’t get much TV either, leaving room to live and love — and also to learn from this untimely tragedy conceivable. Sure, Michael tunes in to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Monday nights, but otherwise he’s the exact opposite of the “born couch potato” the real-life writer calls himself.

The film depicts Michael’s childhood like the sitcoms he grew up watching, complete with a fake living room set and a canned laugh track, but he’s otherwise involved in the real world, as he’s present for partner Kit Cowan (played by Ben Aldridge) through the worst of his illness, not sticking around. with the group or snag the writing loop when Kate needs it most. Such dedication is deeply moving, particularly to LGBTQ audiences who — if “Bros” are to be believed — gay romantic comedies didn’t even exist a couple of months ago (spoiler alert: they’ve been around for decades). However, such a direct approach does not appear to be the correct answer for this character or her story.

“Spoiler Alert” is a classic, stubborn Ausiello book treatment, even when the script — written by David Marshall Grant and offbeat relationship advice guru Dan Savage — aims for something a little bolder. I suspect the project was conceived and probably shot as a more exciting movie, then tested, marketed, and watered down to the diet soda version we’re getting here.

Consider how casual most of Kate and Michael’s conversations are. Kit watched “zero TV” before they started dating, which keeps frivolous, calorie-free trivia to a minimum, yet the pair are no more talkative than Kate’s “monosyllabic” co-worker (Sadie Smith). The book is torturous, irreverent, and uncommonly familiar, like a one-sided conversation with the funniest gay friend. The film removes the subtitle “The Hero Dies” and obscures this information. From the opening scene, we know Kit ends up in the hospital, but we may as well spend the rest hoping for his recovery. Zoe Kazan’s character appeared in The Big Sick, after all, so why couldn’t Kate, people might ask? Because it would all be wrong, however, Showalter couldn’t help teasing the possibility.

You can feel Savage’s touch in many of the movie’s best scenes, like the first time Kit puts Michael back in his place, and the “FFK” (ex-Fat Kid) feeling uncomfortable when removing his shirt. The massive shift in gay acceptance over the past 20 years has happened along with the proliferation of pornography, adding to body shame and confidence issues for many. “Spoiler Alert” is one of the only films that has faced the toll this takes. (This could most likely be a Grant effect, think about it. The co-writer, who’s also an actor, plays the couple’s therapist.)

Later, when Michael finally lets Kit into his apartment, we discover why he’s so reluctant to have Kit see her — a potential deal-breaker for most guys, since the script is sensitive enough to recognize as an unresolved dimension of his childhood trauma. The conversation that follows, in which the two men confess fear, is another great moment, chiming in with a poignant scene later in the film, when Kit is presented with a cancer diagnosis. Throughout, “Spoiler Alert” shows maturity toward modern relationships, whether straight or kinky, which is refreshing and enlightening.

Unfortunately, much of the movie simply doesn’t work. While Parsons has plenty of experience playing nerds, he seems wrong, holding out on giving the energy of a supporting actor in a lead role on the big screen. Getting a well-known TV star to play Michael, who might have been 30 at the time, was clever, but Parsons looks much older than Ausiello today, and there’s a weird lighting issue where everyone (especially him) seems buried under layers of bad makeup.

While the film’s self-conscious title gives way to Brechtian touches, the director doesn’t go far enough in Charlie Kaufman’s direction — or, as in his TV inspiration, stops too far on “It’s the Garry Shandling Show,” the 80s sitcom blockbuster that oft- I broke the fourth wall. “Spoiler Alert” falters when such tricks are attempted, as in Michael’s farewell to Kit, when the camera pulls back to reveal the crew.

This is the film’s emotional climax, but without the proper setting, it shreds the sincerity established in the film’s best scenes, like the one Kate comes out to his parents, played by Bill Irwin and Sally Field. These two are great, if not a match for Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in the director’s over-the-top thriller “The Big Sick.” Showalter should have adhered more to the postmodern approach of Ossiello’s book. As it is, this Shirley MacLaine-inspired hospital meltdown goes to show just how this tearjerker can’t touch a classic like “Terms of Endearment” (even if that movie was made by a guy who cut his teeth on TV).

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