One of the more memorable episodes of Michael Ausiello’s 2017 memoir finds the television journalist (and obsessive) visiting the Brooklyn set of “The Americans” on the same afternoon his longtime boyfriend, photographer Kit Cowan, sees a colorectal specialist about the severe pain he was experiencing. Mere seconds before sitting down for a chat with stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, Ausiello receives a text informing him that Cowan’s doctor has found a growth; already traumatized by watching his mother die from cancer when he was a child, Ausiello jumps to the worst possible conclusion.
Time would tragically justify such catastrophizing (Ausiello’s book is called “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies”), but for the moment, he can only sit through an interview he’d been too excited about to reschedule, his mind entirely in Manhattan as he struggles to do a job that often seemed more like a fantasy.
Powerful beyond the obvious reasons, the scene also inverts the sacred pact Ausiello made with television as a child, when he was a closeted young outsider who found warmth and comfort in the suds of his favorite soaps. Once upon a time, TV was where he would turn when everything else was too painful; on the other side of the looking glass, he finds himself pretending to care about the fantasy world so he can return to his pain. While (very proud about being) friends with the talent, Ausiello recognizes how unhelpful it would be to share his private distress with the public figures sitting across from him, and the specificity of that tension allows the entire scene to ring true.
That same moment is revisited in Michael Showalter’s “Spoiler Alert” — a weirdly generic seriocomic weepy that betrays the fact it wasn’t scripted by Ausiello himself at almost every turn — but it’s abbreviated beyond any discernible point and stripped of the details that made it scar on the page. Instead of sitting its protagonist down with Russell and Rhys on the set of “The Americans,” the movie puts Michael (a sweet if simpering Jim Parsons) in the middle of an on-camera with an unnamed actor on an unnamed show.
If either of those elements were real, I didn’t recognize them, and if either of them is meant to have special meaning for Michael, he seems as oblivious to that as I was. As it’s staged here, the scene doesn’t register as anything more profound than “someone gets some ominous news about their partner.” I’m obviously not suggesting Showalter needed to rebuild the set of “The Americans” for this adaptation to work (Russell’s other major TV show gets a cameo instead). But that tendency to lose specifics in favor of broad emotional beats proves typical of a movie that offers all the surprise and immediacy of a rerun, even as its drama hinges on the idea of someone processing their own story for the first time.
It’s a wasted opportunity, as David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage’s standard-issue screenplay hints at the uniqueness of Ausiello’s lived experience, and how a richer film might’ve leveraged it into a portrait of how people use fictional narratives to frame their very real pain — for better or worse. From the opening scenes, “Spoiler Alert” taps into the idea that Michael spent his childhood sitting at the foot of a black mirror that rarely allowed him to see his own reflection (in part because his TV was always on, and in part because there were few gay characters on it during his glory days as a couch potato).
Even as an openly gay adult in the early aughts, which is when this movie begins, Michael’s continuing struggle to feel comfortable in his own skin seems to stem from the sense that TV never allowed him to entertain the idea that he might be the main character in his own story. There’s also the implication that he’s used television as a buffer to protect himself from personal drama since his mother’s death, and “Spoiler Alert” clumsily explores both of those ideas at once through snippets from a fake ’80s sitcom about Michael’s childhood, which are too unnerving to jive with the fluff that Showalter pads around them.
Michael also generates some discomfort on his own. When a TV Guide coworker convinces him to ignore the “Fear Factor” listicle he’s working on and join him for jock night at a local gay club, Michael rolls up in a flat-brimmed Yankees hat and a grimace that screams, “I’d rather be watching ‘Survivor.’” And when a hunk named Kit hits on him anyway, Michael’s only move is to make an extremely painful “Knight Rider” reference.
This will not be the most cringe-worthy or revealing expression of his obsessive viewing habits. Michael soon likens himself to a network sitcom in contrast to Kit’s premium cable show (adding to the meta-joke of Parsons’ casting), and Showalter upholds that self-image by shooting “Spoiler Alert” with all the grace and will of “Will & Grace.” The director’s unfussy style feels anonymous without the wit that propped up “The Big Sick” or the larger-than-life absurdity that animated “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and while some of the more unexpected gags make for laugh-out-loud moments (a TV-themed bit on the steps of City Hall that feels like a nice little gift to the New Yorkers), most of the movie is streaked with a weak lightness that awkwardly hovers between funny and not.
One easy source of comedy: The fact that Kit doesn’t even own a TV. He’s played by a smoldering and semi-tender Ben Aldridge, who uses his muscles to force some nuance into a movie that starts losing his character to cancer long before it actually kills him. What does register about the semi-closeted Kit is that — for all his J. Crew looks and natural confidence — he’s more insecure about how he presents himself to the world than meek little Michael has ever been. Michael is an orphan, while Kit is still closeted to his restless triathlete mom (Sally Field, seizing on the part like a septuagenarian wind-up toy) and his seemingly inflexible dad (the ever-reliable Bill Irwin).
Epitomized by the lovely and lived-in scene where Kit reveals the truth to his parents, these two men answer each other in a way that allows their turbulent love story to achieve an implicit residue of truth. “Spoiler Alert” sticks to that residue through thick and thin, even though it stumbles through its efforts to give it more texture (e.g. a cheating subplot that barely makes an impression before it returns, at the worst possible moment, for a self-reflexive climactic reveal that confuses far more than it clarifies). By the time we reach the “crushingly bittersweet handjobs set to blubbering ambient music” part of the story, that over-cranked music cue feels right at home in the kind of movie that uses Julien Baker songs to pave over patchy screenwriting as it races to surrender its characters to their circumstances.
Terminal cancer has a nasty habit of sanding everyone down to the same shape, but anyone touched by it can feel like they’re being plunged into unexplored territory — even if they’ve already been there once before. Where “Spoiler Alert” winds up is a moot point, but it loses its sense of self so completely along the way that it can only force you back on your own fears of loss in lieu of anywhere else to go. It made me cry at the end, but my tears were as canned and untrustworthy as the sound of a sitcom laugh track. I could barely remember what I had just watched, only that it was often honest enough to make me want to be with my family but never specific enough to justify the fact that I wasn’t.
Focus Features will release “Spoiler Alert” in theaters on Friday, December 2.