Producers: Jim Parsons, Todd Spiewak, Allison Mo Massey, Michael Showalter and Jordana Mollick Director: Michael Showalter Screenplay: David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage Cast: Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Nikki M. James, Sally Field, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Self, Antoni Porowski, David Marshall Grant, Josh Pais, Brody Caines, Tara Summers, Sadie Scott and Shunori Ramanathan Distributor: Focus Features
Emulating Alfred Hitchcock’s self-professed habit of returning to the tried and true when one of his films failed to connect with the audience, Michael Showalter, after the disappointing reception of both the criminally undervalued “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “The Lovebirds,” revisits the genre that brought him his greatest success—the rom-com weepie. But this adaptation of Michael Ausiello’s 2017 memoir (whose subtitle “The Hero Dies” it jettisons) about his relationship with photographer Kit Cowan fails to recapture the spark of Showalter’s previous exercise in tragic-end romance, 2017’s “The Big Sick,” though in that case the tragedy was ultimately avoided.
In this instance the couple is gay. Jim Parsons stars as Ausiello, who as a staff writer for TV Guide met handsome Cowan (Ben Aldridge) in a bar in 2001. The two instantly clicked despite their different personalities, and eventually moved in together. There were rough patches that required couples counseling, and they eventually separated amicably, but when Cowan was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, Ausiello became his primary support and caregiver until his death.
That, in a nutshell, is the film’s plot. But as directed by Showalter and edited by Peter Teschner, it’s played out in a fashion that never seems real in either its initial coupling section or its ultimate melancholy one, although the story itself is. Despite game efforts from Parsons and Aldridge, the movie doesn’t convince us of the instant attraction between Michael, the Smurf-collecting uptight nebbish whose frame of reference comes almost entirely from watching television, and hunky Kit, a well-muscled promiscuous guy who’s nonetheless still in the closet insofar as his parents Marilyn and Bob (Sally Field and Bill Irwin) are concerned. Nor does it chart the development and deterioration of their relationship with particular insight, preferring instead to tick off a montage of “over the years” Christmas cards that are meant to suffice apart from a tiff over Michael’s suspicion that Kit is cheating on him with office mate Sebastian (Antoni Porowski)—a thread reintroduced awkwardly in the last reel—along with a montage of their animated complaints to a therapist (David Marshall Grant). And when the film reaches the final act involving Kit’s succumbing to a sudden onset of terminal, fast-spreading cancer, it fails to achieve the emotional force it’s striving for, opting instead to wrench us from the dying man’s final breath to an ill-conceived imaginary sequence that falls flat.
The weaknesses are exacerbated by dialogue that never rings true, generally clunky and surprisingly flat when it tries for quippy humor. And though Michael, who begins the story with narration, assures us that he’s going to stop talking, he never does, yammering on through the close; you might think of the film as an illustrated audiobook. This is one instance when a technique that’s generally deplorable—pulling away from a conversation so that we observe it silently from afar rather than hearing the words, as in the scene where Kit finally tells his parents of his condition—is actually welcome.
Even more damaging is a misguided device that periodically interrupts the action explaining Michael’s special horror over Kit’s condition by portraying the loss of his mother to cancer in the form of scenes from a bad eighties sitcom in which, as a self-described FFK (Former Fat Kid) played by Brody Caines, he witnesses his mom (Tara Summers) learning of her diagnosis. The interjections would be disruptive under any circumstances, but they’re also so poorly done as to be embarrassing.
Neither does the film use its cast to best advantage. Parsons brings the skills honed on network sitcoms considerably better than the fabricated one included here to the mix, but his dramatic impulses feel false, especially since Showalter exhibits a penchant for oppressive close-ups, and while Aldridge fills the physical dimensions of his role, he proves overmatched by the demands of his later scenes. Even Field and Irwin fare poorly. She’s forced into exaggeration as a woman who, in her seventies, is still devoted to participating in triathlons; Irwin fares better as her halting, complaining, nervously halting spouse. A few others have moments: Sadie Scott as Kit’s amusingly laconic roommate, Jeffrey Self as Michael’s extrovert friend Nick, and Nikki M. James as their mutual pal Nina. Visually the film has a TV sitcom look—Sara K. White’s production design and Claire Parkinson’s costumes are unremarkable, as is Brian Burgoyne’s cinematography, though matters spark somewhat in outdoor sequences at Ocean Beach. Brian H. Kim’s score falls back on rather predictable effects.
“Spoiler Alert” tells a story that, while formulaic, can’t help but be touching. But while it may succeed in wringing a few tears from you, in retrospect you probably won’t feel they’ve been earned.