Traditionally endings are not meant to precede the beginning and middle of the story.
It makes sense – starting off on the finish line can rob a story of the narrative momentum built up in the first two acts of its emotional power and storytelling impact, and leave you feeling like you’re headed to an already too-familiar destination.
The crime genre is perhaps the only one where revealing say the killer works but for most other stories, beginning then middle then end works a treat and it doesn’t pay to meddle with the formula.
Spoiler Alert, the adaptation of the beautifully emotionally evocative memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Michael Ausiello, dares to throw that dogma on its head but for a very good reason.
Central to this deeply moving story of very human and wondrously fallible love story between two men who never expected to find each other on the night they did, is the fact that one half of the couple, photographer Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) dies of cancer, effectively right at the beginning of the book.
That’s not, of course, where this grand story of connection and devotion begins – that’s in a bar one night after TV writer Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons), then working as a journalist at TV Guide is convinced to go out dancing straight from his work by his colleague who begs him not to be such a workaholic – but it’s where it ends and Michael felt that, given it frames the entirety of their story by its crushing emotional finality, that he had to lead with it.
The remarkable thing is that not one gram of the impressive emotional impact of Spoiler Alert is leached away by knowing this one hugely pertinent piece of narrative information.
In fact, knowing this is where we are headed simply serves to amplify how much this story impacts you because you know that the meet-cute and the super conversational, chemistry-rich and warmly funny first date and all the perfect memories that follow are coming to a hard and fatal full stop.
Far from robbing them of their last emotional resonance, knowing Kit is going to die means that all the moments that the two share over the 14 years of being together, which includes being married in the six weeks of being together, feel that much more touching and important.
So much more valuable, in fact.
Michael cleverly inserted a great deal of humour and self-deprecation into the book too, making it clear while theirs was a love story for the ages that it was also affected by the kind of fallible humanity that afflicts us all, their respective quirks and elements of brokenness – Michael is a nerdily enthusiastic Smurfs fan who has never recovered from his mum dying of cancer when he was a boy and Kit is afraid of being deeply connected to anyone, preferring one night stands to the intimately invasive nature of relationships – every bit as much of their love story as the soaringly romantic parts.
It’s that willingness to be brave and brutally honest even in the glorious midst of falling and being in love that informs so much of Spoiler Alert.
This is love as it’s actually lived, a million miles from greeting cards and rom-coms which, while wonderful in their own way, suffer from being quite a way from the stark reality about how love plays out in the grinding gears of the everyday.
It would be delightful if every moment of every relationship was starry-eyed and dosed in a hazily lustrous pink glow but the fact is that for every time you lie under a twinkling Christmas tree, as Michael and Kit do in one touchingly sweet and hopeful scene, or gaze adoringly in each other’s eyes on a beach holiday (one last highly-successful attempt to make special memories), there are other times when the cracks widen, the rancour slips in and all that blissed up bonhomie looks like yesterday’s discarded and empty Valentine’s Day chocolate box.
That Michael kept those broken moments in there along all of the beautifully romantic ones gives their story, already rich in an emotional frankness which is breathtaking in its unvarnished honesty, so much emotional muscularity and truthfulness.
Helping matters too is that Michael opens up his heart about what it was like for him growing up and that, besides Smurfs giving him a tangible link to a long gone past, he clings to TV as a way of making sense of the world, imagining his childhood as a playful ’80s sitcom which plays throughout the movie underscoring what led Michael be the person who eventually convinces Kit that being in a relationship may not be such a bad thing after all.
But for all its willingness to be funny, open and brave, what really infuses Spoiler Alert, and you simply can’t escape it because the big ticket announcement is unavoidably out front front from the get-go, is the dread that comes from knowing Kit is headed for a mortal cliff from which there is no recovery.
Their love story is honest and wonderful and sometimes broken but not irretrievably so, that you want, you WILL, Kit to live; you know he can’t, it’s there in the title of the book and suggested in the movie’s abbreviated title, but god, you wish he could.
You wish that the dead hand of dream-killing reality could be stayed, that the 14 years they are given could be the 40 Michael hoped for, and that all manner of fairytale endings could be theirs.
But that’s not what happens, and as you reach the final wrenching act of this nuanced, intimate story of love on the cusp of here-and-now oblivion, you have to resign yourself to the fact that what happens to Kit is going to happen no matter what.
What makes this hugely sad and intensely affecting final act so powerful is that Michael steps in just as he and Kit’s parents, Marilyn and Bob (Sally Field and Bill Irwin respectively) who handle both Kit’s delayed coming out and his cancer diagnosis with a bravery only matched by Michael, and wonders, in a breakaway scene what it would be like if this was just a TV scene and Kit could away unaffected.
He can’t of course but seeing Michael picture what it might be like if Kit did survive really drives home, and breaks your heart into a million grieving pieces in the process, how much is being lost in that ter-drenched moment of eternal farewell.
Spoiler Alert is a gem, deftly bringing together buoyant humour, rom-com worthy love though one tinged markedly by a fallible humanity common to us all, and the desperate sadness of reality stepping onto dearly held dreams of lifelong connection into a buoyantly happy but ultimately tragic story that celebrates how good love can be, and how even if it doesn’t end as planned, it’s been a precious gift to have it in the first place.