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‘Spoiler Alert’: This tear-jerker earns its tissues

Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge star in a romantic dramedy based on Michael Ausiello’s memoir of life with husband Kit Cowan

Jim Parsons, left, and Ben Aldridge in “Spoiler Alert.” (Giovanni Rufino/Focus Features)
4 min
(3 stars)

As an ending, happily ever after works in love stories. In real life, it’s more often just the beginning. The real story comes after Cinderella starts to notice that the prince is pathologically incapable of putting his socks in the hamper, or when Beast notices that Beauty can’t tell the difference between recycling and trash. In the movie “Spoiler Alert,” happily ever after is what happens only after the foundation of a relationship gets chipped away at by resentment and stress and distance.

Based on entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello’s 2017 memoir, the film tracks the relationship between Michael (Jim Parsons) and his photographer husband Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) from its beginning to its sad end, which is more than hinted at in the book’s subtitle. Spoiler alert: It’s a tear-jerker. At a recent press screening, the studio sent along tissues with “You might need these” emblazoned on them. Those tears are earned by grounded performances and a solid screenplay (by TV writer David Marshall Grant and sex columnist and author Dan Savage).

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When the protagonists meet, Michael is a teetotaling, vegetarian writer for TV Guide who’s ready for a verbal throw-down with anyone who disrespects “Felicity.” Kit is a bit more of a hedonist, with plenty of casual hookups under his belt and weed on his nightstand. It is not love at first sight, and their connection isn’t an easy one. Each man grapples with emotional baggage; there are conflicts about monogamy, Kit’s choice to remain partially closeted and an obsession with a childhood TV show. (To reveal more would kill the movie’s most hilarious scene.) Over the years, the two transform and grow and bicker and watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” together. In other words, they live their lives. Then comes a grave health diagnosis for Kit, and with it the gut-punching revelation that they, like the rest of us, have been living on borrowed time.

Director Michael Showalter (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) has assembled a stellar cast and guides them well. Parsons is one of the few actors who are just as interesting to watch when they’re listening as when they’re speaking; he is fully present in each moment in a way that elevates his performance above potential treacle. Aldridge has an unenviable task: playing a very sick person, accompanied by all the required tropes. Still, he manages to make it clear that Kit is not just a patient, but a person. As Kit’s parents, Bill Irwin and Sally Field are lovely together; Field in particular is blazingly funny, while breaking your heart.

The script is an asset and, at times, a hindrance: Mike and Kit share quick banter, but sometimes their dialogue pulls back and slows down, right before going full Aaron Sorkin. The one gimmick that doesn’t work is the film’s reliance on flashbacks to Mike’s childhood, which are shot and written like a 1980s sitcom. It’s a technique that has promise initially but by the end only serves to distract. It’s as if the filmmakers were so committed to the shtick that they couldn’t notice when it became a problem.

Just as Kit isn’t defined by a health crisis, “Spoiler Alert” isn’t defined by its less-than-happy ending. The film’s focus is the life the two share, not what follows. Yes, the final scenes are brutal and grueling and awful, but also lovely — and never manipulative or exploitative. Unlike so many “illness movies” — I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks — Kit’s life is not mined for the lessons it teaches us.

In “Spoiler Alert,” living is its own end. Ultimately, the movie tells a story about two lives: complicated, filled with both love and pain, but well and fully lived.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual material, drug use and mature thematic elements. 112 minutes.