If Unfrosted is anything to go by, Seinfeld is right – he really can’t be funny anymore

Billionaire comedian Jerry Seinfeld returns to a lead role (and the celebration of cereal) with directorial debut Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story. Blandly inoffensive, it doesn’t commit to nearly enough of its scattered gags, says Steve Newall.

Jerry Seinfeld was recently proclaimed “the scholar of comedy” by a New Yorker feature—likely thanks to its comparisons between the comic and Roman emperor-cum-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That’s not what the interview has been known for though. Instead, that would be Seinfeld’s infamous, out of touch moaning about the toll taken on comedy by “the extreme left and P.C. crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people”.

As part of the promo cycle for his Netflix feature Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story, it sure generated clicks and hot takes—so you could be forgiven for thinking it was a piece of cynical attention-seeking or trolling. But setting aside all the evidence contradicting his thesis (Always Sunny etc.), and looking solely at Unfrosted, Seinfeld isn’t entirely wrong. The evidence suggests he really can’t be funny anymore.

Plenty of gags are tossed around, but Seinfeld’s goofy take on the origins of the Pop-Tart breakfast snack lands far too few of ’em. Some of the time, Unfrosted seems to think it’s Airplane! with its frequency of jokes, but manages to infuse the infectious tone of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker parodies with the inert half-hearted comedy of Sandler-and-pals Happy Madison productions. Time passes differently in those movies. Here I was checking my watch to see how much longer I had to persevere, only to find I was only half an hour in…

Always far from the strongest performer in his own screen ensembles, Seinfeld’s starring role in his own movie feels as disengaged and unfocused as the pic itself. He plays a Kellogg marketing executive, part of a team (that also includes Jim Gaffigan and Melissa McCarthy, gamely doing their best with tepid material) racing to beat cereal company competitor Post to market with a range of supermarket toaster pastries. What emerges from this premise somehow manages to be both smug and unsure of itself at the same time. It’s kind of a space race drama parody, but one that’s blandly inoffensive and doesn’t commit to nearly enough of its scattered gags.

Hugh Grant is the most prominent of a few notable exceptions, and exudes commitment as a Shakespearean actor slumming it playing cereal mascot Tony the Tiger. As seen to entertaining effect in other recent efforts, he’s in full scenery-chewing mode here and provides sorely-needed energy, enlivening otherwise dead patches of the pic.

Grant’s pompous real-life Brit thesp Thurl Ravenscroft also gets to be a key figure in one of the comic sequences that Unfrosted doesn’t commit to often enough. Mostly content to rely on lazy quips, one-liners, or cultural references, the movie seldom really leans into a scene that will let it take full advantage of absurdity—so when Tony the Tiger transforms from Frosties ambassador into a certain shamanic insurrectionist, leading dozens of mascots on a Jan 6th-like revolt, it’s a welcome sight (if too little, too late).

As well as a number of briefly amusing cameos I won’t spoil, some of the few other highlights include Kyle Dunnigan (successfully channeling Airplane!’s Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack in his portrayal of Walter Cronkite) and Thomas Lennon in one of the few running gags that work (as white supremacist and Sea Monkey “inventor” Harold von Braunhut—also a real person). The ongoing references to von Braunhut’s Nazism have a little venom to them that the movie could have done with elsewhere.

Mostly though, folks don’t seem to be having much fun onscreen, and that translates to the viewer. There’s little energy or vibe to energise us, which is a terrible accompaniment to an underwritten script. Elsewhere in his interview with the New Yorker, Seinfeld spoke of the rigour required in crafting comedy—but his assessment of what we’d enjoy watching feels as off as his reading of the contemporary comedic and cultural landscapes. With only a couple genuine laughs, a few chuckles, and 90% of its would-be jokes drifting past with zero impact, Unfrosted may as well be called Unfunny.