Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Unfrosted: Sixties Silliness

Netflix’s new Unfrosted, the directorial debut of Jerry Seinfeld, is rated PG-13.  But you’d have to be a lot older than thirteen to catch all the comic references (and would-be comic references) to the era in which this TV movie is set. In fact co-writer (as well as director and star) Seinfeld was himself merely a kid in 1963 when JFK was president, NASA was prepping a moon mission, Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves, and Kellogg’s was introducing its new breakfast idea, Pop Tarts.

 I’m not quite sure why Seinfeld and his cronies decided the world needed a fictionalized version of the rivalry between Kellogg’s and Post, both of then Battle Creek, Michigan companies striving to be numero uno in the American breakfast market. But they must have felt that the rampant consumerism of the era made for a lively target. And so it does, at least for a while. In their version (which has nothing to do with actual fact), Post—led by Amy Schumer as Marjorie Merriweather Post—has stolen Kellogg’s plans for a heat-and-serve breakfast pastry, and is preparing for a huge roll-out of the new product. To head off this effort, Kellogg’s team has cornered the market in Cuban sugar, and borrowed the shape of a Univac punch card to create their own pastry. They’ve then brought in Jon Hamm and John Slattery of Mad Men fame to give their invention the proper P.R. push, making Pop Tarts fly off store shelves, unlike Post’s almost identical Country Squares.

 The film also finds room for Melissa McCarthy, Bob Gaffigan (as Edsel Kellogg III, the Seinfeld character’s boss), Dan Levy (in a brief appearance as Andy Warhol),  and Peter Dinklage (leading the milk industry’s charge against the new product). James Marsden, hamming it up as TV exercise king Jack Lalanne, heads a lively parade of the era’s commercial icons, which include Chef Boyardee and the maker of  Schwinn bikes.  And speaking of icons, none other than Hugh Grant plays Thurl Ravenscroft, an actor whose claim to fame is being the sonorous voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. Ravenscroft was an actual voice performer, much beloved by Disney animators, but in Seinfeld’s version he’s a frustrated Shakespearean actor who ends up leading a gaggle of cereal mascots--think Snap, Crackle, and Pop—in a work action against their unappreciative bosses.

 In an effort to leave no Sixties celebrities unspoofed, Unfrosted also makes room for Johnny Carson, John F. Kennedy (furnished with a Boston accent and a pair of attractive blonde twins), and Nikita Khrushchev, who’s brought into the conflict by the Post folks. (Trying to woo him, they posit the introduction of some Russian-friendly cereals like Borscht Loops and Count Vodkula.)  There’s also much would-be jocularity surrounding NASA’s early stabs at space exploration. One joke involving the death in a 1967 launchpad fire of early astronaut Gus Grissom did not go over well in my household. 

 With Jerry Seinfeld’s humor getting more political these days, it wasn’t surprising to notice a more current allusion too. At a point near the end of the film, when striking mascots are demanding that governmental officials “stop the certification” of the new product, the rhetoric is an obvious spoof of the events of January 6, 2021 (and Hugh Grant’s character appears in a Tiger-striped version of the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who wore an outlandish headdress to storm the U.S. Capitol.) Clever parody? I’m not so sure. More like a cluster of buddies at a late-night bull session, thinking up everything and anything that could make them laugh.




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