Seinfeld’s Netflix Pop-Tart movie embarrasses everyone

Seinfeld peeks out of bunker between Melissa McCarthy and Jim Gaffigan in the Netflix movie Unfrosted.
Image: Netflix

This is where I draw the line

Growing up, I liked Pop-Tarts. I don’t think that’s a particularly novel sentiment for an American child to have; they’re delicious little squares of crust and fruit goo packed in silvery packets, like bricks of kid-friendly cocaine. Like a lot of children (and some adults), I never thought about the fact that something I liked might be bad for me, until one day in the eighth grade, Mrs. Schenck saw one of us crack open a pack and said, “There is zero nutritional value in a Pop-Tart.” Perhaps she thought shame would change the habits of a bunch of rangy preteens. Pop-Tarts, however, are not the purview of anyone remotely concerned with shame.

Unfrosted, Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix-produced directorial debut, is loosely based on the wild story of how Pop-Tarts came to be. Seinfeld, who also co-scripted the film, stars as Bob Cabana, a Kellogg’s marketing executive loosely based on food-industry executive William Post. With the help of Melissa McCarthy as former NASA scientist Donna Stankowski, Cabana is tasked with beating Kellogg’s rival Post Cereals to market with a shelf-stable pastry, a product that would change the breakfast world of 1963. It’s The Right Stuff, but about corporate snack innovation, and played with the absurdity that premise implies.

A murderer’s row of Known Funny People pop up to do bits 30 seconds at a time, from Hugh Grant as a diva Tony the Tiger (playing on his real-world reputation) to Drew Tarver of The Other Two playing Pop, one of the Rice Krispies mascot elves (playing off the reputation of his character on The Other Two). It’s a pretty family-friendly affair, even if most of the jokes will fly over kids’ heads. How familiar are your children with the Jan. 6 insurrection?

Hugh Grant wears a mustache and a Tony the Tiger costume with the mask off in the Netflix movie Unfrosted.
Photo: John P. Johnson/Netflix

Naturally, the premise sounds silly. Foolish, even. But Seinfeld doesn’t let it show. Unfrosted is briskly paced and gamely acted, and its script, co-written by Spike Feresten, Andy Robin, and Barry Marder, does not contain a whit of self-consciousness. It’s also funny at times, even if it is a depressing, vulgar little project.

There is no aspect of the American experience that cannot be grafted onto a product. This is one of the core tenets of advertising — the best way to sell something is to associate it with what the audience holds dear. But lately, Hollywood, in a desperate bid for familiar intellectual property that will guarantee an audience, has gotten in on the action too. Consider: Flamin’ Hot spinning a bag of Cheetos into a paean to the idealized bootstraps immigrant experience, Barbie as a pop-feminist treatise, or Air as a dirge for the monoculture. It’s embarrassing to funnel culture through this lens, to continually seek new ways to marry the human experience to shit you can buy.

Juxtaposing Unfrosted with other movies in the burgeoning product-mythology canon, it isn’t as obvious what Seinfeld is trying to accomplish with his movie’s gag-a-minute antics. But there are dots to connect. Bob Cabana, in a running joke, continually finds inspiration in a pair of precocious children who go dumpster diving at Post Cereals purely for the rush, snacking on leftover filling and other edible detritus the company throws away. Cabana and his peers at both Kellogg’s and Post are company stooges unbothered by idealism. They just want to win the war for breakfast, and they’re happy to shovel sugar and any other shelf-stable additive onto supermarket shelves if it’ll juice sales. Similarly, they’re eager to grease any palms necessary — striking deals with everyone from Nikita Khrushchev (Dean Norris) to an FDA agent (Fred Armisen) — to get their latest food experiment onto American tables.

Seinfeld stands behind a podium in front of the Kellogg’s K logo alongside a panel of other people in the Netflix movie Unfrosted.
Photo: John P. Johnson/Netflix

Despite its family-friendly veneer, Unfrosted is a resolutely cynical work. Step outside of the candy-colored glow of its warm cinematography, and the picture is bleak. Just as Pop-Tarts come from the executives in the film studying trash, Hollywood’s desperation for marketable IP means that studios are happy to greenlight literal garbage. What does it mean that Jerry Seinfeld — a man who never needs to work another day in his life if he doesn’t want to, a guy mostly famous these days for simply hanging out — is back with a movie that proves Hollywood will greenlight a film about any old brand, no matter how nonsensical?

Not much, it turns out. According to Seinfeld himself, Unfrosted is merely an exercise in warm silliness, born from the bleak early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and a very long-gestating stand-up joke about how much joy the treat brought him as a kid. As venerated as he is in comedy, his material has never really been about pushing buttons, no matter what he might say about how PC culture makes the business of comedy harder.

The thing is, Seinfeld’s Pop-Tart gag is right. Pop-Tarts do make you feel good. They’re hot and sweet and just the right size to indulge in, without feeling too bad about it. I still get a box of Pop-Tarts for myself every now and then, the way someone who quit smoking might indulge in a loosie. I can forget myself for a minute when I eat a Pop-Tart. That’s a nice feeling. Unfrosted isn’t about that feeling. It’s about the product. The movie represents months and months of sustained labor from hundreds of people, including many of the most talented and recognizable names in their field, in the service of a story that possesses no satirical edge, or any human connection. It takes whatever pleasure can be derived from a Pop-Tart, and chokes on it.

Unfrosted is now streaming on Netflix.

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