Opinion: What ‘Unfrosted’ reveals about my growing unease about Jerry Seinfeld

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on X @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

On some level, I’m no different from the rest of America — and the world at large. I can easily fill an empty half-hour of my life with one of the dozens of “Seinfeld” repeats cruising every day through the media landscape and come away refreshed from watching Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer mess up their lives and those of others who come into their erratic orbits.

Gene Seymour - Jeremy Freeman/CNN
Gene Seymour - Jeremy Freeman/CNN

I also love the irrational power that comes over me when I utter, in a public space, “The sea was angry that day, my friends…” knowing that somebody who hears me has seen that same classic “Seinfeld” installment will complete that sentence and share a laugh over the memory.

So, I admit it. I love “Seinfeld.” As for the actual comedian Jerry Seinfeld, however it’s…complicated. Especially lately.

In most of his activities outside his eponymous classic sitcom (1989-1998), Seinfeld bemuses more than amuses me. In his stand-up routines, which never fail to get monstrous hype and attendance, he’s made me laugh. But I’d be lying if I said I never wondered why I was laughing at all.

This ambivalence only obliquely affects my opinion of “Unfrosted,” Seinfeld’s recently-released feature-length Netflix comedy. Critics’ reactions have been conflicted, with some reviewers complaining that his star-studded New Frontier-ish spoof about the invention of the Pop Tart is little more than an overextended comedy skit or that it is too blatantly a manifestation of the recent trend to make “biopics” of corporate brands, as last year’s “Air” or “Barbie” did. And if — as at least one critic speculated — Seinfeld’s intent was to parody or subvert this trend, it seemed half-hearted at best.

But as far as I and some other viewers were concerned, such negativity was stirred by expectations of depth or comedic complexity that “Unfrosted” never intended to meet in the first place. I took director-co-writer Seinfeld’s amiably goofball pastiche at face value and bought into its faux credulity over the power struggles of fictionalized cereal magnates — and (of course) company mascots from Tony the Tiger (played by Hugh Grant as Thurl Ravenscroft) to the Quaker Oats parson (Andy Daly). It suggested to me, in an entertaining way, a sixth-grade classroom project to replicate with brightly-colored construction paper and paste a grand mosaic of shared early-1960s mishigas.

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who generally shared my enjoyment, described “Unfrosted” as “the quintessential comedian’s movie: it thumbs its nose at everything without necessarily believing in anything.” Not only does this neatly sum up the movie’s virtues for me, but it also crystallizes how thinking about “Unfrosted” has clarified my own qualms about Seinfeld the stand-up icon.

Kyle Dunnigan’s Walter Cronkite as a flaky lush? Bill Burr’s JFK skulking off for a rendezvous with the Doublemint twins? Not really, but so what? It’s kind of a vicarious kick watching such marquee names as Grant, Melissa McCarthy, James Marsden, Amy Schumer, Christian Slater, Jon Hamm and John Slattery (renting out their “Mad Men” personas) joining Seinfeld, who plays a gray flanneled Kellogg’s exec, in his kitschy playroom, enjoying each other’s company.

Unlike his friend and sometime collaborator Larry David, Seinfeld’s “observational comedy” leaves no resonances or echoes in its wake; it doesn’t startle or upend expectations. And unlike the epochal sitcom David and Seinfeld brought forth together, Seinfeld’s routines don’t leave you with any perceptions of substance about what is truly mortifying about Being Human.

Which, to be fair, isn’t the game Seinfeld wants or needs to play. He wants to spin some random, mostly mundane things about which we’ve all been mystified or irritated and achieve the widest possible communion with his audiences. It’s a smooth, reliable approach to entertainment that’s worked for generations, and Seinfeld’s cool command of its elements have made him a beloved and wealthy franchise.

Still, I’ve always had the disquieting sense of Seinfeld somehow always Getting Away With Something when he pulls off this suave, impeccably creased act. Perhaps this is nothing but personal preference, but I’ve always liked more edginess in my stand-up diet. John Mulaney is just as impeccably dressed as Seinfeld in his act and yet there’s an invigorating sense of high-wire risk when, as his “Baby” Netflix special from a year ago, he devotes most of his on-stage time to recounting (uproariously, somehow) his harrowing tales of substance abuse and recovery.

Seinfeld isn’t about unsettling his viewers and I’m in no way suggesting he should be. Still, his lightly-worn insistence on steering clear of controversy has hit a couple of telling snags lately, as when he submitted his methinks-he-doth-protest-too-much gripes about “political correctness” killing comedy while promoting “Unfrosted.” He has also become more visible in his assaults on antisemitism and his support of Israel in its war with Hamas, leading to the disquieting question as to whether many people will miss having an apolitical Seinfeld slipping through controversy the way his sitcom alter-ego often seemed to slip away from long-term trouble.

Maybe the truest depiction of where Seinfeld is at right now came during the most recent “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live” when he was billed only as a guy doing “too much press.” Seinfeld carried on as if he were beaten down and left (unusually) disheveled by all the press appearances he’d been making in the last several weeks on his Neflix vehicle’s behalf.

And how did he wrap this seeming portrait of unkempt, exhausted anxiety? By slipping in yet another promo for his movie, that’s how. No matter how weird it all gets, Seinfeld is all business. That’s his saving grace.

If you want to call it that.

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