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What's the deal with Unfrosted?

‘When I was a kid and they invented the Pop-Tart, the back of my head blew right off.’ So begins Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up bit about Pop-Tarts which needlessly sparked the creation of an entire film. Seinfeld’s directorial debut Unfrosted is a gleefully silly family comedy about the invention of the toasted breakfast treat, blending Seinfeld’s wry humour with zany gags and nostalgic charm. 

Director and co-writer Jerry Seinfeld stars as Bob Cabana, an Ideas Man at Kellogg’s, stationed in Battle Creek, Michigan, the epicentre of the breakfast cereal wars of 1963. As Kellogg’s defends its turf against their secretive and scheming rivals Post, they’re blindsided by Post’s latest creation, a fruit-filled breakfast pastry. In response, Kellogg’s enlists Melissa McCarthy, a NASA scientist, to fast-track their own fruit pastry before Post can get their product on shelves. 

This 90-minute love letter to the Pop-Tart parodies the corporate origin story and isn’t meant to be considered with any kind of depth. Unlike the recent string of product biopic films like Air or Blackberry or that one about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the story is almost a complete fabrication and kept basic and serviceable; a framework on which to hang innumerable cereal-based gags.

It’s brimming with cameos from comedic actors who have graced our screens over the decades and who still know how to deliver. Hugh Grant steals practially every scene, joyously rehashing his performance from Paddington 2 playing disgruntled theatre actor Thurl Ravenscroft (a real person) who voiced Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger. The comedy writes itself. 

Alongside Grant is a sort of Delta Squad of veteran comedians like Amy Schumer. Bill Burr. Jim Gaffigan. Fred Armisen. Jack McBrayer. Ronnie Chieng. Packing this level of sheer comedic horespower into one film is unparalleled in recent years, a Bugatti Veyron of onscreen comedy. But, somehow, it feels wasted. The best of them get about 30 seconds of screen time and are given almost nothing to do, except perhaps delivering an unwelcome life lesson in expectations vs reality. That said, Armisen still shines.   

The script is tight and jammed with references to Seinfeld’s own stand-up routines which diehard fans will recognise. Still, the cameos shoulder much of the comedic work. Christian Slater plays a conspiratorial milkman, James Marsden a daffy gym instructor, Peter Dinklage a mafia boss, and all are relatively superfluous to the plot. Much of this didn’t strike me as very Seinfeld-esque, with the madcap shenanigans throughout belonging more to the Leslie Neilsen Naked Gun school of comedy, or Dan Harmon’s Community (specifically that episode when Troy becomes the air conditioning messiah). But taken together, does it work? 

David Mamet said something to the effect of, when you have a failed drama, it’s still an ok drama. When you have a failed comedy, you have a tragedy. (In a risk-averse Hollywood, it’s no wonder you don’t see big screen comedies anymore.) And this definitely isn’t a tragedy, although some critics would argue the point. 

All up, it’s ridiculous fun, much as you would expect. But here’s my issue with this film: Jerry Seinfeld is the ultimate impassive observer of our foibles, and if he is not the greatest comedian of all time, then I don’t know who is. His stature as a comedian might be the film’s biggest problem, because we all know what he can do. Yet the full weight of his comedic talent doesn’t seem like it’s in play here, which makes Unfrosted somewhat bittersweet. Parts feel underdone, like the ‘taste pilots’ and milk syndicate subplots. And the scenes with Gaffigan and Schumer never quite take off. Sure, it has moments of comedic gold, but I was expecting tears of laughter. What was going on here? Was this like Superman refusing to use his full power? 

The answer could lie in an interview Seinfeld gave a few weeks back with David Remnick at The New Yorker where Seinfeld laments the process of writing comedy for film. ‘When you write a script and it goes into four or five different hands, committees, groups — Here’s our thought about this joke. Well, that’s the end of your comedy.’

Unfrosted doesn’t aspire to be a great film, but afterwards, I was both amused and perplexed. What was this? Who was it for?



'Much like a Pop-Tart, Unfrosted is sweet, full of colour and flavour. Is it nutritious? No. Does it aspire to be? No. In parts it feels too thin, too sweet, too flat. But who knows? That might be part of the joke.' 



Perhaps understandably, Unfrosted didn’t land with everyone. Critics chewed it up and spat it out. I wonder how much of this was a reaction to Seinfeld’s New Yorker interview where Seinfeld also discusses the death of comedy on television. ‘[In decades past] you just expected, ‘There’ll be some funny stuff we can watch on TV tonight.’ Well, guess what — where is it? This is the result of the extreme left and P.C crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

Noting Seinfeld’s ‘P.C crap’ comments, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour concluded that Seinfeld had lost touch and suggested that perhaps he was never that good to begin with. Jeez, lighten up everyone. Richard Roeper’s generosity as reviewer didn’t stretch much further. For him, Unfrosted was ‘a live action cartoon’. And to be fair, Unfrosted does have a slightly weird plasticky, Loony Tunes quality to it. Roeper also said It’s ‘one of the worst films of the decade so far.’ In what has arguably been one of the worst decades of cinema ever, this also feels a tad extreme. 

The critical response is at least in part a failure of marketing. Because this is a kids’ movie, marketed as a comedy for adults. Of course, the references to non-current cultural touchstones like The Right Stuff, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now will be lost on anyone born after 1986, as will the presence of Jon Hamm, reprising his role as Don Draper. [NB: The stiffs at NPR also couldn’t understand why Jon Hamm was in this film. Pearls before swine.]

All of which makes for something that is, at times, confusing watching. But the other day, a colleague made an observation which blew this whole movie wide open for me: Unfrosted is a Muppet movie, just without the Muppets. It’s the perfect descriptor. The over-the-top vaudevillian performances, the facile optimism, the mad schemes, the (mostly) harmless explosions, the song and dance number. Swap out Jerry with Kermit, Gaffigan with Fozzie and Schumer with Miss Piggy and this whole enterprise makes a whole lot more sense. With that shift in framing, it all clicks into place. It might even be the greatest Muppet movie of the decade. Take that, Roeper.  

And this Muppet film seems to occupy itself with questions like: are disposable and pointless things worth anything? Is a Pop-Tart worth eating? Is a film about Pop-Tarts worth making? And by way of answer: some people seem to like them, so who cares?

Much like a Pop-Tart, Unfrosted is sweet, full of colour and flavour. Is it nutritious? No. Does it aspire to be? No. In parts it feels too thin, too sweet, too flat. But who knows? That might be part of the joke. 

In 2013, Jerry sat down with Jenny Woodward at the New York Times and explained how he wrote the Pop-Tart joke. ‘I spent two years on this bit. That’s a long time to spend on something that means absolutely nothing. That’s what people want me to do. People want me to spend a lot of time wastefully. So that I can then waste their time… To waste this much time on something this stupid, that felt good to me.’


Unfrosted is available on Netflix. 



David Halliday is editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Unfrosted promotional image (Netflix)

Topic tags: David Halliday, Jerry Seinfeld, Unfrosted, NPR, Comedy, Pop-Tarts



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Existing comments

Thanks. David - this one won't be on my 'must see' list.

John RD | 16 May 2024  

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