Credit: John P. Johnson/Netflix
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Streaming Scene

Unfrosted — Jerry Seinfeld

May 3, 2024

It must be stated that Jerry Seinfeld’s hugely popular, eponymous sitcom about four superficial and self-involved New Yorkers, Seinfeld (perhaps you’ve heard of it) remains as funny as anything that’s ever aired on television. If one had 93 minutes to kill, there are far worse ways to spend them than watching approximately four episodes on Netflix, as it remains as audacious and acerbic now as it was in the mid-’90s. And the reason that must be stated is that Seinfeld has spent the 25 years since the series ended calling into question, through his subsequent creative endeavors and public behavior, whatever it was we all found so funny about him and the show: whether that’s tossed-off sponsored content made with his famous friends (72 episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, brought to you by Acura and/or Lavazza), a mirthless children’s film late to the computer animation craze (Bee Movie), or increasingly sour standup specials and public statements giving off strong “old man yells at cloud” energy. All of this culminated in widely-circulated comments made last week blaming “the extreme left and P.C. crap” for the decline of network comedies. In light of that position, it’s hard not to interpret the release of Unfrosted, which Seinfeld not only stars in but directed, co-produced, and co-wrote, as a definitive statement on what he views as actually funny — a rebuke even of a timid, easily offended culture gripped by over-sensitivity and virtue signaling. And on those terms, as well as by every other standard, it’s as self-damning a work as anything released in recent memory.

Playing like a feature-length Super Bowl commercial where 90% of the humor boils down to recognizing and then going through the motions of smiling at assorted cameos, historical figures, pop culture ephemera, and fashions from the early ’60s, Unfrosted posits a speculative history that treats the race to invent a fruit-filled breakfast pastry (today we call them “Pop-Tarts”) as an existence-threatening event pitting cereal titans Kellogg’s and Post against one another. Seinfeld stars as Kellogg’s marketing whiz Bob Cabana, whose work selling Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes dominates the industry, although he yearns for the sort of success that will allow him to put down a sod lawn on his front yard and send his kids to college (“that’s like $200 a year”). But when cross-town competitor Post — the film is set in Battle Creek, Michigan, where both companies really did operate in relative proximity — appears to have invented a “dingus” packed with sugary-goo right under their nose, it sends Bob and Kellogg’s CEO Edsell Kellogg II (Jim Gaffigan) into a panic over the prospects of becoming the “lumpy Cream of Wheat” of the breakfast world. It requires decisive action if Kellogg’s is going to beat Post to market with their own mass-produced breakfast pastry, including Bob reconciling with his combative “right hand man” Donna “Stan” Stankowski (Melissa McCarthy; and if you think the film wouldn’t be lazy enough to just keep misgendering the actress as the punchline of a given scene, then you’ve gravely misjudged it) who has left the fold to invent Tang at NASA. Assembling a team of 1960s luminaries, who at this point are primarily answers to pub trivia, including fitness guru Jack LaLanne (James Marsden) and Cookie Puss creator — if you’re under the age of 40, Google it — Tom Carvel (Adrian Martinez), Bob and the Kellogg’s team set about cracking the code on a “toaster-ready anytime treat,” fend off a consortium of nefarious milk men, and ponder a love that dare not speak its name between the oafish Edsell and mean girl rival Marjorie Post (Amy Schumer). Also, they inadvertently cause the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Seinfeld’s disastrous press tour notwithstanding, Unfrosted is as edgy as a hula hoop. While we get the occasional language police dig (“you can’t say ‘hobo’ anymore… they prefer ‘bum’”) and an inexplicable sequence that restages the January 6th insurrection complete with Hugh Grant’s disgruntled corporate mascot decked out like the QAnon Shaman, the vast majority of the film takes inspiration from the sort of inoffensive hangups and arrested development that made up the comedian’s early standup. When Bob slurps up a bowl of Corn Flakes in the Kellogg’s commissary and offers up “the magic of cereal is you’re eating and drinking at the same time with one hand,” it’s easy enough to imagine the line as one of his sitcom non sequiturs. Only here it follows a dreamy montage of our three lead actors excitedly pouring bowls of cereal for themselves scored to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” — which was released half a decade after this film is set, but if we never again have to endure a discourse about anachronistic needle drops it will still be too soon — that’s all but indistinguishable from a paid advertisement. Unfrosted is lit like a showroom and edited with the glib quippiness of a 30-second TV spot; the butt of the joke is always the over-exuberance of the characters — personified by Seinfeld’s spastic gesticulating, mugging, and straining for a higher register — and never the product itself, which is presented in reverential close-up and all but accompanied by choirs of angels. The film doesn’t take itself seriously, the same way any paid pitchman will yuk it up with flop sweat desperation but the brand remains sacrosanct. And make no mistake, Unfrosted is selling us with every fiber of its being; building off the glut of consumer goods origin stories released last year that valorized the efforts behind Air Jordans, Tetris, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (Barbie, innocent though) without the courtesy of disguising its venality beyond the most surface level of gags and the tacit understanding that this gathering of comedy geniuses would never sink so low. Wokeness and the “extreme left” shoulder no blame for this monstrosity. Only an embittered 70-year-old billionaire could make something this soulless.

DIRECTOR: Jerry Seinfeld;  CAST: Jerry Seinfeld, Melissa McCarthy, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Schumer, Hugh Grant;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  IN THEATERS/STREAMING: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.