Even if you didn’t know the full title of the bestselling memoir by entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello that this film is based on—Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies—within the opening moments you’ll find out where it’s eventually headed. We see a heathy looking, but distraught Michael (Jim Parsons) in a hospital bed lovingly facing an ailing Kit (Ben Aldridge) with Michael’s voice-over telling us, “this isn’t how our story was supposed to end”. He then takes us back through their lives together, from the moment he first caught sight of the “sweatband-wearing matinee idol” on jock night at a New York gay club he was dragged to by his colleague Nick (an appealingly effervescent Jeffery Self), through the highs and lows of their relationship, right up until this tragic point. No spoiler alert required: you’ll need to keep the Kleenex handy.
When Michael takes us back to the start, he’s working as a staff writer for TV Guide, pitching stories about Gilmore Girls to his editor who is more interested in him covering the reality show Fear Factor. Both of which are airing at the time, given that this is the early 2000s, with Felicitybeing Michael’s favourite contemporary series. His passion for and deep knowledge of television informs how he views the world and his relationship with Kit, which is nicely woven into the fabric of the film by director Michael Showalter (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Big Sick). In a bold stylistic choice, the flashbacks to Michael’s childhood are in the form of an imagined family sitcom, The Ausiellos. Complete with canned laughter and intentionally treacly incongruous music, the sequences both playfully and poignantly take us through a youth spent watching soaps with his mom and being bullied at school for being an overweight gay kid with a dead dad, with actor Brody Caines capturing the sweetness and insecurities of the young Michael.
As our leading men have their nightclub meet-cute, Michael immediately makes a connection to a TV show—the 80s hit with a killer theme tune, Knight Rider—in which David Hasselhoff’s character, Michael, had a talking car named Kit. Meanwhile, photographer Kit who doesn’t even own a TV and has never heard of the show, kindly humours Michael that the coincidence must mean that their meeting is kismet. Kit’s rather full-on and tipsy bff Nina (a fun Nikki M. James making the most of every second she’s on screen) is on hand to inform Michael that he’s just Kit’s type: “a tall dweeb”. While Kit—”the hero” of the book’s title—is the epitome of cool in Michael’s eyes, not to mention dashingly handsome. There’s instant chemistry there and I was quickly rooting for them get together and for their relationship to work. Early on at least, there’s a similar dynamic to the central relationship in Bros, with Michael feeling a little inadequate next to the attractive and assured Kit, who has until now been happily playing the field and never committed to having a boyfriend. As Michael puts it—in TV terms of course—he’s a “network soap” entering Kit’s sophisticated world that’s more “premium cable”.
Sprinkled with the kind of quirky details that tend to only come from a story based on real life, Spoiler Alert captures all the excitement and uncertainty of getting to know someone and falling in love; the significance attached to creating some closet space for their things, who says I love you first, and the anxiety over whether our secret obsessions once revealed might be a deal-breaker. David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage’s well-crafted screenplay requires a skillful blend of comic timing and emotional depth from its leads, and crucially Parsons and Aldridge both deliver excellent performances that are precise yet feel effortless and natural and invite us in. Parsons brings a sharp wit combined with an adorable vulnerability to the tightly-wound Michael, who has some self-esteem issues as a self-described “FFK” (former fat kid) and doesn’t quite realize he’s a catch too. Aldridge (who appeared in the first season of Fleabag and stars as Thomas Wayne in Pennyworth) might be a dreamboat with a smile that has Julia Roberts levels of disarming charm but, like his character, he never rests on his looks, grounding Kit in a sense that he hasn’t quite got life figured out yet despite his alluring confidence and charisma. Although this story is told from Michael’s perspective looking back on his lost love, he doesn’t canonize Kit, or ignore the issues in the relationship.
While Michael and his mother simultaneously realized that he was gay as a pre-teen watching Days of Our Lives together, Kit’s queer awakening and self-acceptance came more recently, and when we first meet him he hasn’t yet come out to his parents, Marilyn (Sally Field) and Bob (Bill Irwin). Cue a deliciously awkward sequence when they unexpectedly come to stay at Kit’s apartment. Although Michael has throughly “de-gayed” Kit’s room by the time they arrive—with the help of Kit’s “monosyllabic” queer roommate Kirby (a hilariously deadpan Sadie Scott)—removing any telltale clothes, books, DVDs, and photographs, the one thing that remains is the rainbow flag of giveaways, Michael himself. Field and Irwin make for an endearing double act, with the rhythms of people who’ve spent a lifetime in each other’s company, bringing levity and an affecting warmth to this loving couple who quickly embrace Michael as part of the family.
When it comes to Kit’s inevitable illness, the scenes of medial appointments, treatment, and agonizing pain are just raw enough to make things feel authentic, without becoming too distressing for the audience. It’s easy enough to imagine what we don’t see or hear, like the effective scene of Kit telling his parents about his diagnosis, which we observe out of earshot through a closed window from outside the house.
With the help of Peter Teschner’s tight editing, Showalter keeps things pacey and continually engaging. Knowing how it’s all going to end, particularly given that this is based on a real relationship, gives even the most buoyant and romantic scenes an edge and encourages us to pay close attention, conscious that all of their time together is precious. The desire to capture a fleeting moment is represented in the photographs that the men take of each other, including their annual self-timed portrait next to their Christmas tree. Along with soap operas, one of Michael’s lifelong obsessions is the festive season and as he reflects back on his life with Kit he measures their years together in Christmas trees. It’s an element that makes this romantic gay weepie a welcome addition to the growing number of LGBTQ+ Christmas movies. Well, if Gremlins and Die Hard count as Christmas flicks, this one definitely does.
Along with Kylie, Robyn, and Drag Race, there’s added queer culture in the form of Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski as Kit’s coworker Sebastian, who Michael jealously refers to as Tom Daley’s doppelgänger. In a nice visual flourish at one point, we see a ripped Porowski through Michael’s eyes in a Speedo ready to take a dive at the Olympics. Although Michael has his suspicions that something is going on between the men, he stews in his concerns rather than directly addressing it with Kit, villainizing him in the TV show playing out in his head. As the years go by, the film tracks the decline in open communication between the two, leading to a simple but powerfully moving scene as the end draws near with them discussing what lies ahead for both of them.
When we hear, or even speak the words “till death do us part” as a promise to another human, their overfamiliarity can rob them of some their meaning. Happily ever after only happens in fairy tales. In real life, if a relationship goes the distance, then sooner or later its eventual conclusion is inevitable. For obvious reasons, most of us don’t spend too much time dwelling on death, but when we’re forced to face it in our lives with the loss of a loved one, or vicariously through movies or television, it tends to remind us to appreciate and cherish those who we care about most. Spoiler Alert is heartbreaking but beautifully life-affirming, and made me hold me husband’s hand that bit tighter, and hug him that bit closer.