(From left) Jerry Seinfeld as Bob Cabana, Adrian Martinez as Tom Carvel, Jack McBrayer as Steve Schwinn, Thomas Lennon as Harold Von Braunhut, Bobby Moynihan as Chef Boyardee and James Marsden as Jack LaLanne in “Unfrosted.” (Photo/John P. Johnson-Netflix)
(From left) Jerry Seinfeld as Bob Cabana, Adrian Martinez as Tom Carvel, Jack McBrayer as Steve Schwinn, Thomas Lennon as Harold Von Braunhut, Bobby Moynihan as Chef Boyardee and James Marsden as Jack LaLanne in “Unfrosted.” (Photo/John P. Johnson-Netflix)

In ‘Unfrosted,’ Jerry Seinfeld plays with his food

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In the lead up to Jerry Seinfeld’s directorial debut “Unfrosted,” the world witnessed a high-fructose bloodbath.

At the Pop-Tarts Bowl in Orlando, college football players competed for the opportunity to devour a sentient Pop-Tart, who happily waved as he descended into a giant toaster, appearing on the other side as a Grand Guignol communion for the hungry athletes, who tore into its strawberry guts as Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” piped through the stadium.

The memes were quick, the sentiment confused. Was Pop-Tarts a brand in crisis? Had it forgotten that its target market is children? A similar perplexity surrounded Seinfeld’s new Netflix film, inspired by jokes from his act, about the origin story of the familiar perforated breakfast pocket. Who was it for?

In a late scene in “Unfrosted,” Seinfeld’s Bob Cabana, a product developer at Kellogg’s in the 1960s, invites a pair of men from Madison Avenue (Jon Hamm and John Slattery — any resemblance to Don Draper and Roger Sterling is purely intentional) to make their ad pitch. Their presentation includes packaging of pin-up models gazing seductively at the consumer.

“You know we’re a kid’s cereal company, right?” Kellogg’s boss Edsel Kellogg III (Jim Gaffigan), chimes in.

Unlike Seinfeld’s previous cinematic venture, the instantly memeable “Bee Movie,” “Unfrosted” is not for the kinderlach, who will surely miss much of its Kennedy-era references. Rather, the movie sings with the sensibilities of adults who refuse to grow up.

Set in Battle Creek, Michigan, the nucleus of American breakfast innovation, the movie follows the contours of “The Right Stuff” as Cabana, who perhaps not incidentally shares a name with an astronaut, courts his partner Stan (Melissa McCarthy), luring her away from her job making space food at NASA to assemble a shelf-stable pastry, cryptically codenamed “The Dingus” — a possible play on Oppenheimer’s “Gadget.”

Across the way from Kellogg’s HQ is competitor, Post, headed by Marjorie Post (Amy Schumer, playing one of the film’s few real people), also hard at work on a processed toaster-friendly foodstuff. The two companies engage in corporate espionage and tense, sugary-goop experiments as they jockey to hit store shelves first. The resulting antics incorporate elements of “The Godfather” as it adds five cereal families, a milkman mafia and a sugar drug lord named El Sucre to the mix.

A sendup of the emerging genre of movies about stuff — “Air,” “Flamin’ Hot,” “Barbie” — Seinfeld, who co-wrote the script with Spike Feresten, Andy Robin and Barry Marder, takes aim at much more than just the feel-good, Oscar-bait sponcon. And however much it appreciates its core product, the film is more than just a 90-minute commercial.  Or at least not purely a commercial for Pop-Tarts.

The movie throws back to mid-century innovations with its crew of “taste pilots,” including the creator of the Schwinn bicycle, soft-serve pioneer Tom Carvel and Chef Boyardee himself, brought over to inspire Bob and Stan. (Thomas Lennon, as the German-born inventor of sea monkeys evasive about his whereabouts in the 1940s, suggests a sort of kitschy Operation Paperclip.)

Would-be thespians playing cereal mascots, led by Hugh Grant as an Oxbridge-accented Tony the Tiger, revolt in a scene briefly reminiscent of Jan. 6. Dean Norris appears as Nikita Khrushchev with Bill Burr as JFK, heading for a sugar-spiked Cuban Missile Crisis. A descending helicopter knocks the block off a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot and Cabana finds a Baby Ruth in the pocket of a suit worn by William Howard Taft.

Everything is tossed at the wall and, like Pop-Tarts’ gooey filling, much of it sticks.

Amid a sea of celebrity faces — including a former senator — and gags with a formidable hit rate, Seinfeld is giving cinematic life to what he’s always excelled at: asking “What’s the deal” with things most people dismiss as trivial beyond consideration.

Drew Tarver as Pop, Mikey Day as Crackle, Kyle Mooney as Snap and Andy Daly as Isaiah Lamb (of Quaker Oats) in a deliciously dumb set piece. (Photo/John P. Johnson-Netflix)
(From left) Drew Tarver as Pop, Mikey Day as Crackle, Kyle Mooney as Snap and Andy Daly as Isaiah Lamb (of Quaker Oats) in a deliciously dumb set piece. (Photo/John P. Johnson-Netflix)

The stand-up who called out the arrogance of a cereal for calling itself “Life,” gives us a funeral scene where a character is buried in cornflakes and the widow presented a free prize folded like a flag. The actor who delivered an indelible line read of the name “Newman,” applies the same seething rage to the word “xanthan.” The avowed admirer of junk adults aren’t supposed to eat brings a childlike wonder to a phony history of an invention that forever upended the cereal aisle.

For all the bitter headlines he generated in April while kvetching over “P.C. crap,” this is a Seinfeld who only cares for what doesn’t matter, making for the rare vanity project that is actually enjoyable and even a touch sweet.

The world of “Unfrosted” is one where Walter Cronkite (Kyle Dunnigan) cracks open the Silly Putty when he’s off camera and moans about his marriage. It’s a universe that is thoroughly unserious and disinterested in making any sort of a statement. It’s a breath of fresh air away from a lot of hot air.

Render onto Jerry what is his — a galaxy of the irrelevant that he fills with new, absurd meaning. It’s nice to see him playing with his food again.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].