OK, Let’s Try This Whole ‘Gay Rom-Com’ Thing Again
The box office for gay-themed films has been bleak this year. Between the stunted returns for Universal’s Bros and the otherworldly under-performance of Disney’s Strange World (both, by the way, solid movies), it’s hard to imagine major studios green-lighting anything with LGBTQ+ themes in the near future. The bright spots have been A24’s multiverse fantasia Everything Everywhere All at Once and the brisk though limited box office for Netflix’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (wherein Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc was revealed as queer).
Spoiler Alert — a dramedy directed by Michael Showalter, starring Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge, and based on Michael Ausiello’s heartbreaking memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies — doesn’t seem to have the built-in appeal of a rom-com or a brand mystery, but it may just be a modest sleeper hit because of what it does have: an enormous heart and the emotional wallop of a shared cry. It’s a circle tearjerker of epic proportions.
Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a writer for TV Guide. He spends his days musing about which of the Gilmore Girls characters are the best and the worst. When he isn’t working, he’s working. He lives on his own in a Smurf-filled apartment in Jersey City and avoids as much social interaction as possible. At the insistence of a co-worker, he goes to “jock night” at a NYC gay bar, meets Christopher ‘Kit’ Cowan (Ben Aldridge), a fledgling photographer, and before they know it, they’ve become an item despite Michael’s mental scars as both an FFK (“former fat kid,” as he tells Kit) and his mother’s death from cancer when he was a tween. Kit has his own issues, not the least of which revolves around his closeted status in his mid-30s.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Showalter’s film; it has the same dramatic/comedic beats as a standard rom-com or disease-of-the-week film. It’s one conceptual flight of fancy — that Michael often recalls his adolescence as if it was a ’90s-shot sitcom (with fake laugh track) — is facile at worst, though not truly reprehensible. It’s cute for a moment, but doesn’t add much else. The screenplay adaptation, by David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage, is sturdy and, especially in regard to its main characters, authentic. Michael and Kit aren’t types; they’re flawed and rounded human beings, navigating the difficulties of coupledom and, inevitably, the returning specter of cancer. Showalter’s strengths as a director — in movies such as The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye — stem from his work as an actor. He gets grounded, realistic performances from Jim Parsons, and from Sally Fields and Bill Irwin as Kit’s parents Marilyn and Bob.
Best of all, he gives to Ben Aldridge his first leading man role, and it couldn’t be bested. Kit has been serially single for most of his life, though he does have a type: the tall dweeb. Kit is funny and vain, sexually charged but attuned to the nuance of his partner’s emotional fluctuations, selfish and sympathetic in equal measure, solid and mercurial. There’s a centered physicality to Aldridge’s work here that becomes more poignant as his stature diminishes, and he has that rare gift certain actors possess wherein they can play comedy and drama within the confines of a single sentence.
I used to think that I was not a Jim Parsons fan, yet after his work the last two years in The Boys in the Band and Hollywood, it turns out I’m not a fan of The Big Bang Theory. This is the best performance of Parsons’ career, and while I expected the movie to open the floodgates in me, in no way did I think it would happen during one of the happiest moments of the film, and Parsons’ quicksilver, devastating reaction to it. I won’t give that away, because my feeling is that what will touch the audience may well be more private and situated in what we bring with us to the theatre.
But I can’t imagine most people walking out of the movie untouched by what they’ve seen, and thinking about all the moments and tribulations of their own lives and regrets and loves and losses. Despite the toughness of its subject matter (and its unflinching approach to it), Spoiler Alert isn’t depressing; it’s cleansing. That sense of community — that shared expression of grief — may be what propels Spoiler Alert forward on its journey in the world.