Movie Review: The Automat (2021)

Now available on demand, via select streaming services and in limited theatrical release.

Phone booths, penny arcades and locomotive cabooses may all be things of the past, but the safe space to rhapsodize about bygone icons is the stuff of immortality. Director Lisa Hurwitz deftly turns her attention to the most democratic of U.S. food chains in her sweet and sentimental documentary The Automat (B+), and in creating this nostalgic work, she traces nearly a century of imagination, immigration, wartime, fluctuating finances plus transformations in American tastes and temperaments. Horn & Hardart was the venerable “lemon meringue” phenomenon with the novel approach to quality fast food, home to the slot-machine lunch served in Art Deco cathedrals. In its heyday these restaurants were as universally accessible as the NYC subways and nourished nearly ten percent of Philadelphia’s population; everyone from bums to billionaires shared the same elegant communal tables, with newcomers marveling at the marble, crooning over the chrome, wistfully wondering at the windows how this magic gets made. Hurwitz rounds up an auspicious cast of eyewitnesses to the eatery, lunching with the stars including consummate entertainer Mel Brooks and Starbucks’ enterprising Howard Schultz as well as late greats Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner. It’s a treat to crack open the multimedia archives and learn from people involved in the heart of house at the business; it would have been additionally insightful to hear from nickel throwers and commissary craftspeople, but presumably many of these company men and women are also lost to history. The director’s bento box of treasures includes a look at the origins of the European technology, the silver dolphin-head coffee spouts, the prescient retail shops and even the TV and movie tie-ins associated with the chain. Her requiem for the brass, the pillars, the cuisine and the chatter earns its place among the Edward Hopper paintings and Audrey Hepburn movies immortalizing the institution. In lionizing the American automat, Hurwitz helps viewers re-live a simpler epoch when meatloaf, cream spinach, strawberry rhubarb or coconut custard pies were just a token away and when a melting pot of consumers could intersect and simply savor timeless moments together.

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