The Spool / Movies
Unfrosted is less fun than eating a burnt Pop-Tart
A few dollops of pure absurdity aren't enough filling to overpower Jerry Seinfeld's mean-hearted, sour comedy pastry's chalky taste.
StarringJon Hamm,
MPAA RatingPG-13
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I will give Unfrosted, director/co-writer/star/breakfast aficionado Jerry Seinfeld’s heavily fictionalized, would-be-gonzo take on the invention of the Pop-Tart, this: I did laugh, albeit mirthlessly. For one sequence, Seinfeld and his creative collaborators push past stale, semi-affectionate satire and into the rarefied realm of “Yes, we’re going for it.” It’s a funeral. The deceased is laid to rest with the highest honors a breakfast food developer may be accorded. Why is he dead? An office culture that prioritized the appearance of safety (testing the revolutionary self-stable fruit pastry in a full space suit, complete with isolated oxygen supply) over actual safety (keeping said oxygen supply next to an overclocked toaster). After all, beating Post to market is far more important than protecting your staff from violent immolation.

The Corn Flakes rooster, Toucan Sam (Cedric Yarbrough), Tony the Tiger (Thurl Ravenscroft, as played by Hugh Grant), and Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Kyle Mooney, Mikey Day, and Drew Tarver), among others, perform the rites. As the deceased’s widow (Sarah Burns) looks on in increasingly horrified bafflement, these priests of the breakfast table lower the coffin into the ground and then dump cereal and milk into the grave, topped with fresh fruit laid by professional mourners. A cereal box prize is presented like the flags given to the family of slain soldiers.

It’s an audacious, out-there scene, a moment of distinct, morbid silliness that reminds me of when Barry B. Benson had Winnie the Pooh sniped. In a world where rival cereal companies seek the aid of Kennedy (Bill Burr) and Kruschev (Dean Norris) and the head of Big Milk (Peter Dinklage) can have someone tortured for daring to suggest that breakfast might not always need cow juice, Full Cearal Honors feels like Seinfeld and company cranking up the dial to eleven and jamming while dancing around Stonehenge. What is there to do but laugh?

Unfrosted, Netflix
Unfrosted‘s Five Families of Breakfast gather for a meeting in a moment that should be ridiculous but is mostly just annoying. (Netflix)

I’ll give Unfrosted these, too—its ensemble’s stuffed to the seams with funny people, and they’re doing their darndest to hit homers. And thanks to DP William Pope (The Matrix Revolutions), it looks lovely.

But great googa mooga Unfrosted, outside of that one brief stretch of absurdity, is dire. Seinfeld, for all that he’s working with a game ensemble, directs himself quite poorly. He plays his fictional product designer, Bob Cabana too broadly—Unfrosted may be a ridiculous, heightened world, but Seinfeld’s fellow players feel like people who exist on that world’s wavelength. Seinfeld himself feels like a guy doing shtick. Cabana isn’t a character; he’s a vehicle for delivering quips. And given that Cabana’s the lead, the weakness of Seinfeld’s performance is a constant issue. The quips only go so far when the rest of the ensemble both sell them more comfortably and do so while playing distinct characters.

The humor has its moments. The disaster and the subsequent funeral are the highlights of the picture. Unfortunately, the jokes are undercut by inconsistency in mode and a mean streak that inspires a confused grimace more than a chuckle. Unfrosted waffles (Eggos, anyone?) between a heightened, goofy riff on the modern corporate object movie (cereal manufacturers have an award show in a hotel complete with catty politeness judo between business rivals. Disaffected mascots band together and strike.) and a full-tilt Top Secret-level wild world (The Cuban Missile Crisis is first and foremost about the breakfast pastry race. The nukes are a minor sidebar.).

Unfrosted, Netflix.
Hugh Grant’s good for a laugh, even if his character’s writing is perplexing. (Netflix)

Unfrosted‘s uncertain feel reads like the creative team going for volume rather than consistency. If it hit more than it missed, or if the picture had more going on, it would not be as big an issue as it is. But it misses more than it hits, and flummoxing as parts of it get, there’s not much to Unfrosted beyond a fondness for the 1960s’ aesthetics and its strange mean streak. Consequently, it’s a muddle.

As for the mean streak? On its own, a movie having a mean streak is not a bad thing. The Fall Guy sets Ryan Gosling on fire repeatedly, and it’s a delight. Cocaine Bear‘s numerous maimings are a big part of its fun. Heck, Unfrosted‘s best joke (Full Cereal Honors) is one of its most vicious. It’s the moments where Seinfeld and company dial back the absurd while keeping to the mean that get clunky. Unfrosted loves ad men and product creators. Good stories exist in those professions, your Mad Mens and your Airs. But Unfrosted pairs its interest with contempt for labor unions ( a nascent mascot union headed by Ravenscroft) and…the Apollo program?

It’s certainly possible to riff on egomaniacal actors with left-wing politics and get laughs. The Coens did so with Hail, Caesar! and Channing Tatum’s defection to the USSR. Still, making the fictionalized Ravenscroft a lout and equating labor action with the insurrection are weird, blinkered choices. It’s definitely possible to riff on the extremely dangerous days of the Apollo program and get laughs. Heck, Unfrosted does it in its best sequence. However, there’s also a joke about the horrific death of Gus Grissom and the possibility that his remains were mixed up with those of a NASA chimp that I cannot parse. The sheer disconnect between ending on “there’s not enough of him to bury” after starting with “he’s going to taste test the Pop-Tart, and he’s wearing a space suit to be safe” is funny. “Gus Grissom and his fellow Apollo 1 astronauts died badly! Tee hee!” is not.

Unfrosted, Netflix.
Too much of Unfrosted is empty, and some of it is downright offputtingly mean. (Netflix)

Between the drastically varying quality of the gags, a weak lead performance, and its mean streak, Unfrosted is decidedly stale. If you want a comedy interested in the feel of the late 1960s, check out Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2. Misadventures in a zany, larger-than-life world? The Fall Guy is a blast. Perhaps a movie about the making of a major consumer product with some laughs and some teeth? Air is terrific for that. If you want a Pop-Tart, have a Pop-Tart. There are so, so many better options than Unfrosted.

Unfrosted is now playing on Netflix.

Unfrosted Trailer:

StarringJon Hamm,
MPAA RatingPG-13