The tonal demands of a romantic-comedy tearjerker prove far too much to handle for director Michael Showalter in “Spoiler Alert,” an awkward and uncertain adaptation of TV critic Michael Ausiello’s memoir, which deals with the illness of Ausiello’s longterm partner Kit Cowan.
Many of the scenes here seem to have been shot in a spirit of tense desperation; the comedy doesn’t land, the romance takes too long to get going, and the tearjerking scenes are spoiled by a meta framework that makes Showalter’s job even more difficult.
“Spoiler Alert” starts with Ausiello (Jim Parsons) embracing a very sick Cowan (Ben Aldridge, “Pennyworth”) in a hospital bed, and this leads to a flashback to their first meeting 14 years or so earlier. We see Ausiello at his job at TV Guide, where he is asked to write more about “Fear Factor” instead of “Gilmore Girls,” and then we see him out at a club where he meets Cowan.
The first third of “Spoiler Alert” is very uneasy because everything depends on the chemistry between the two lead actors, and nothing seems to be happening between them but squirming and discomfort. In the scenes where they kiss, Parsons’s character is supposed to be feeling awkward because of his own personal issues, but this just reads as awkwardness between the actors, as though they had never been introduced and were made to plunge into a big love scene right away.
As “Spoiler Alert” goes on, the real drama comes from the feeling that Aldridge keeps trying to reach Parsons as an actor to create a relationship between their characters, but Parsons keeps twisting himself away from it on a physical and emotional level. Aldridge will look at Parsons with convincingly growing love in close-up, and then Parsons will stare back as if he isn’t actually looking at his leading man but at someone or something else.
The introduction of Sally Field and Bill Irwin as Cowan’s parents is very welcome because they immediately bring a sense of life and believable behavior to their scenes, even doing some overlapping dialogue, and this comes as a relief because so much of “Spoiler Alert” before their entrance has a purgatorial look where even the background actors don’t seem to be moving or living any kind of life at the clubs or restaurants the characters frequent.
“Spoiler Alert” was co-written by actor David Marshall Grant and venerable sex advice columnist Dan Savage, and there are a few moments where it feels like Savage has tried to inject a bit of sexual reality into the portrayal of the main relationship between Ausiello and Cowan, which flounders briefly because their sex life is inhibited by Ausiello’s issues with his body.
Once Cowan is diagnosed with a deadly illness, “Spoiler Alert” briefly transitions into more dramatic scenes but keeps abandoning a more serious tone. “Give my husband the bed!” Ausiello cries, echoing Shirley MacLaine in the ultimate romantic-comedy tearjerker, “Terms of Endearment,” which Ausiello humorously references right after his meltdown.
There is a scene toward the end of “Spoiler Alert” where things look very bad, but both Ausiello and Cowan start to laugh and kid around, and it is easy to imagine how effective this sort of reversal of expectations might have been if only Showalter could have found a smoother and more lifelike balance for the movie as a whole and gotten Parsons to connect to Aldridge as a scene partner on a deeper level.
When Field’s Marilyn is told about her son’s illness, her calm and very tough reaction flies against our expectation of some “big scene” breakdown for Field, who was so memorably enraged and frightened on Broadway with Irwin in Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and who is so noted for both dramatic and comic breakdown scenes. What seems clear as “Spoiler Alert” comes to a close is that it had potential as a tough and funny romance, but the execution of this delicate material is so haphazard that even the best moments are cancelled out.
“Spoiler Alert” opens in select U.S. theaters Dec. 2 and nationwide Dec. 9 via Focus Features.