Review by Sean Boelman
There are two main types of stories that make for great documentaries: ones that have some timely connection and ones that are so unique they are downright fascinating. Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat is the latter, an absolutely adorable film about a subject that is more compelling than you would expect.
The movie investigates the short-lived phenomenon that was the automat, a commissary-style restaurant that served fresh-cooked meals through vending machines. And while it does amount to little more than a nostalgia trip, there’s something unusually charming about these people reminiscing about such an obscure topic.
One of the fatal flaws of Hurwitz’s film is that she fails to pick a person through whom we are experiencing the story. Is this the story of the creators of the automat, or the people who frequented it as a child? The most successful documentaries about institutions of the past have chosen one or the other, but Hurwitz tries to do both, and it feels somewhat distant as a result.
The runtime of the documentary is under an hour and twenty minutes, and it goes by pretty quickly. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Hurwitz recognizes that the story she’s telling isn’t anything weighty, and so it plays out in a bouncy and lighthearted way.
There are some interesting themes that the film could have explored about the mechanization of American society, but the movie doesn’t really explore it that much. Although people frequently mention that the automat was innovative and ahead of its time, it’s just vague praise without any real context.
Hurwitz was able to get some surprising interviews for her film. Why are Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Colin Powell in this movie about automated restaurants? They each have a childhood story about the institution, but it’s more accurately an attempt to get some star power for the movie.
The film also has some sections in which Hurwitz explores the idea of making her movie about the automat, but this meta filmmaking is too underdeveloped to leave much of an impact. That said, Mel Brooks did write a song for the film, and the collaboration between him and Hurwitz is pretty interesting.
The Automat is an adorable little documentary with a story that’s more intriguing than it probably should be. It’s nice to see a wholesome movie like this that doesn’t deal with anything urgent or troubling, but is instead just a bunch of people talking about something they immensely respect.
The Automat is now in theaters.