Comedy Movie

Unfrosted: The Pop-Tarts Story

A handsomely produced, nearly empty experience, “Unfrosted: The Pop-Tarts Story” is hard to describe because it’s tough to tell what the filmmakers were going for, much less argue about whether they achieved it. I say “filmmakers” plural because in theory, it’s a collaborative medium. But here the buck stops with Jerry Seinfeld, who directed, produced, co-wrote the script, and plays the lead role. 

Set in 1963, though it might be hard to tell because of the late ’60s songs that keep sneaking onto the soundtrack, “Unfrosted” is supposedly about the rivalry between breakfast cereal giants Kellogg’s and Post as they engage in a processed food company’s version of the space race. Each hopes to produce a revolutionary new breakfast treat that will crush the competition, and obsessively monitors the opposing company, conducting corporate espionage by way of tiny movie cameras hidden in janitorial equipment. 

The movie is a mishmash of fact and fiction and goofing around. But there’s just enough reality to irritate history nerds that the filmmakers apparently don’t care about offering even a wildly exaggerated or satirized account of compelling true stories of the Kellogg’s-Post rivalry. Their vaudeville/satire approach might’ve worked had the movie been conceived and executed with the panache that, say, the Coen Brothers bring to all of their slapstick features (“The Hudsucker Proxy” seems to have been a partial influence, at least on the “madcap” sequences); or, for that matter, the mix of daffiness and melancholy that Greta Gerwig brought to “Barbie.”  

Seinfeld plays a made-up person named Bob Cabana who works at the uppermost level of Kellogg’s. Cabana reels in his old partner—another made-up character, NASA scientist Donna Stankowski (Melissa McCarthy)—to help him perfect the Pop-Tart.  Jim Gaffigan plays Cabana’s boss Edsel Kellogg III, a made-up member of the Kellogg family. Edsel is in lust with the boss of the competition, Marjorie Post (Amy Schumer). Post is a real historical personage: the daughter of Post Cereal founder C.W. Post. She actually did run Post (the company was once called Postum) as well as the international conglomerate that it morphed into, General Foods. The movie doesn’t care about that stuff, of course; I just mention it in case you wondered if that character was based on anyone real, and if so, whether she amounted to anything other than the shallow, conniving, pushy horndog portrayed by Schumer. 

I could build out the fake/real list of characters for several pages, but there would be no point. You can’t tell from looking at “Unfrosted” why some characters were based on fact and others were invented. There’s no discernible aesthetic, only an immaculate but anonymous-seeming version of craft. In a sense, you could say “Unfrosted” is a very faithful adaptation, because the source is a Seinfeld standup routine on Pop-Tarts, and Seinfeld never cares about anything he talks about in his comedy, which is aggressively, at times petulantly trivial. His immense wealth so insulates him from the real world that he can afford to be the most blasé person alive, rising to passion only when griping to interviewers that comedy has become too woke. “Seinfeld” the sitcom (which Larry David, who has spent his entire adult life giving offense, co-created) often made comic art out of skewering that type of guy. Sometimes Seinfeld played him and was the butt of the joke.  

But I digress. “Unfrosted” doesn’t make much of anything from its subject. It doesn’t care enough to communicate, even in the most basic and lighthearted sense, why it exists, which is something you’d never wonder about, had the movie been overseen by somebody like Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) or Adam McKay (back when he was making films like “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman” that were content to be just comedies) or the grandaddy of modern film parody, Mel Brooks. Seinfeld keeps going for Jerry Lewis or Looney Tunes-style surreal-absurd visual humor, like showing a spy camera barely hidden in the strands of a wet mop that’s actively being used to clean a floor, or having one of the early Pop Tarts prototypes escape from a tank and scuttle around like an edible Pikachu. But he doesn’t have the eye, the timing, or the anarchic spirit to pull it off, and whenever he tries, he achieves the eerily inhuman and cold sort of mastery that Boston Dynamics robots display in dance videos.

There are fleets of vintage mid-century cars, whole neighborhoods retrofitted with period-correct signage, and throngs of background performers wearing outfits that would’ve fit into an early season of “Mad Men.” The circa-1963 clutter on office desks has been manifested with the kind of detail that Andrew Wyeth brought to the textures of wheat fields and farmhouses. It’s evident that everyone who worked on the production cared deeply about their specific department. But the finished product has no apparent passion, even of the silly or self-deprecating kind. It doesn’t even seem to love the consumer products, logos, and corporate mascots it gathers in one cinematic place as if trying to create the mid-20th-century consumer products answer to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “Ready Player One.” 

The dumpster-style accumulation of Wikipedia citations is nonsensical. For no apparent reason, Bob Cabana gathers a team of historical figures associated with legendary American brands, including Sea Monkeys creator Harold von Braunhut (Thomas Lennon), fitness entrepreneur Jack LaLanne (James Marsden), and bicycle magnate Steve Schwinn (Jack McBrayer). None of them are funny, no matter how much they mug and pop their eyes. Thurl Ravenscroft (Hugh Grant), who voiced Tony the Tiger, the Frosted Flakes mascot, is also a character, as are other Kellogg’s and Post cereal mascot performers. JFK is represented (Bill Burr does a solid impersonation) along with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (a glowering Dean Norris) and Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson (both played by Kyle Dunnigan). But none bear much relation to actual people or events, nor (more importantly) to anything amusing (JFK is reduced to his sexual obsessions, and we’re told that he got the Doublemint Twins pregnant). If the pointlessness is the point, it doesn’t come across.

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