Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal comedy Unfrosted is just a little soggy

Jokes fly fast and loose in this Airplane! for the Air era, but only some land safely

Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal comedy Unfrosted is just a little soggy
Melissa McCarthy, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jim Gaffigan in Unfrosted Image: Netflix

Jerry Seinfeld has never been a great actor. He’d agree that surrounding himself with comedic performers like Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus made his sitcom sing more than his acting chops. So, why he decided not only to star in but also direct Unfrosted, a lighter-than-air 96-minute Super Bowl commercial for Kellogg’s, is beyond us. Nine seasons of Seinfeld proves the comedian has a screen presence. He just doesn’t know how to film it.

While Seinfeld might not know acting, he does know cereal. His love for those wheat-based milk swimmers is well documented across his decade on television, where he was frequently found slurping down one bowl after another. Even the Pop-Tart has a storied place in Seinfeld lore. In 2012, The New York Times interviewed him about joke craft, which he exemplified through rough drafts on the invention of the Pop-Tart, material he had been working on for two years at the time. This Pop-Tart material has legs. Unfrosted is by no means a failure. But it’s also about as satisfying as a soggy bowl of cereal. Loaded with his famous friends, Unfrosted is fitfully funny, depending on who’s on screen. Trained actors, improvisers, and sketch comedians help elevate scenes to functionality, but the consummate stand-up lets the production down.

In the early ‘60s, Bob Cabana (Seinfeld), head of marketing at Kellogg’s, basks in the success of another Bowl & Spoon awards, where the company’s breakfast confections and colorful mascots cleaned up. But the demeanor of his rival, Marjorie Post (Amy Schumer), left him suspicious. Later, he finds a pair of kids rooting around the Post dumpster for pie crust and jelly. Kids in the trash are the canary in the coal mine: Begun, the Pop-Tart war has.

Mapping the space race onto mid-century breakfast trends, Seinfeld uses the plot as a vehicle for jokes, not commentary. The toxic air of brand subservience permeates the screen, with characters often discussing just how great these products are. Like many of these “based on a brand” movies, there’s little reflection on making a film about an executive turning a billion-dollar corporation into a multi-billion-dollar corporation. There’s room for an Airplane! in the Air era, but Unfrosted is too in love with its inspiration.

Of course, to Seinfeld, this movie is about nothing. So, while Unfrosted might inch perilously close to Foodfight!, it avoids comparison by aiming for the lowest denominator. Whatever serves the joke is best for the scene—logic is thankfully not part of this balanced breakfast. Snap (Kyle Mooney), Crackle (Mikey Day), and Pop (Drew Tarver) are presented as living people. At the same time, Tony The Tiger is played by Shakespearian thespian Thurl Ravenscroft (Hugh Grant, once again, the MVP).

Unfrosted ebbs and flows depending on who’s in front of the camera. A scene between Thurl and Milkman Mike (Christian Slater) inherently has more power because it’s between two actors investing in a shared reality. Things are a bit shakier with Seinfeld, who remains at his best when tossing off asides. When Kellogg’s head, Edsel Kellogg III (Jim Gaffigan), accuses him of not having feelings—an insult pointed at the actor more than the character—he brushes it off. “I feel fine,” he says. His assertive delivery works because he’s reacting honestly to his partner. It makes sense that editor Evan Henke cut this into a series of close-ups. When Seinfeld shares a frame with other actors, he looks as if he’s waiting for his screen partner to finish talking so he can deliver one of his punchlines.

Written with Seinfeld’s Bee Movie scribes Spike Feresten, Andy Robin, and Barry Marder, the script does give the best material to those around its star, notably Melissa McCarthy, who plays breakfast genius Donna “Stan” Stankowski. Stan has so much more life than Bob, who has a wife (a vanishing Rachael Harris) and goals (afford sod). Stan registers the wackiness around her with a range of emotions that Seinfeld’s half-in-half-out approach can’t match. But like the prize inside, or a maze on the back of the box, Seinfeld’s caravan of side characters are what make the movie. Bobby Moynihan’s Chef Boyardee and an escaped sentient breakfast ravioli provide solid runners, while Kyle Dunnigan’s depressed Walter Cronkite nearly steals the whole thing in three scenes. As the Quaker Oats guy, Andy Daly finds a stronger comedic angle than just about any of the above-the-line players.

Shot by legendary cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2), Unfrosted also boasts a surprisingly distinct visual sensibility. Seinfeld has affection for Mad Men, and Unfrosted benefits from that show’s aesthetic. Yet Seinfeld’s flat blocking and coverage don’t do much with it. Often, we’re stuck in shot-reverse-shot loops, with characters taking turns dropping breakfast-based zingers. Seinfeld’s inventiveness shines when he and Pope play hard with the premise, as in a late-stage milk-heavy funeral. Despite being known for observational humor that puts slight social infractions under the microscope, Seinfeld-as-director is better at orchestrating these grander moments than expected.

Seinfeld has genuine love for these mascots, this era, and this meal. There’s no irony in his fondness for the cereal business. One might wonder why he didn’t simply write an hour of stand-up material on the subject instead of this belabored trifle. Nevertheless, there’s something beautiful about a stand-up, known for hating everything, making a movie about the one thing he loves: eating and drinking at the same time with one hand. It is the most important meal, after all.

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