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Film Review: ‘The Automat’ is a Lovely Look Back at a Very Unique Institution

The Automat
The Automat

I knew of the automat, but I never got to experience it. My grandfather would tell stories of it, but it always sounded strange. However, the new documentary The Automat showcases exactly why he and so many others loved it so very much. The film not only shows its historical footprint in American society, but gets a who’s who of former patrons to testify to its greatness. The result is an incredibly charming little movie, one that will connect you to the past. In doing so, the doc becomes something more than you might initially expect it to be. Only a few minutes in, I was completely sold. This is a lovely flick.

The Automat is the sort of doc that can easily slip between the cracks, but it would be a shame if that happens. It’s a warm movie, one with a subtle yet impactful point to make. Doing it all with a fondness for the time, the establishment, and the people involved only increases its effectiveness. Luckily, there’s an ace up its sleeve, in an Original Song from an Oscar winner. When you hear it, I dare you not to grin from ear to ear.

The Automat

Most of us are too young to remember the Automat, or at least its glory days. Existing in the days before fast food, people in New York City would gather around the communal tables of Horn & Hardart, sharing cheap yet delicious food. Putting nickels into a type of vending machine, they’d receive, baked beans, coffee, pie, and much more. It was not just a way to get a meal without spending a ton of money. It was truly a way to make memories, as we see in this flick.

The doc has all kinds of people reliving their memories and the phenomena of America’s original and most beloved chain of restaurant. Between archival footage, rare photographs, and a surprising all-star cast of talking heads (they include celebrity customers, company executives, historians, and members of the Horn & Hardart families), everyone remembers their time at the Automat. Tracing its history, you’ll come to understand why it impacted all of them so very much.

The Automat

Watching Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, Howard Schultz, and many more all chime in about their experiences there is truly touching. Throw in Brooks’ continued bits of wisdom, as well as his song, and they’re more than just talking heads. It does truly feel like they’re all speaking from the heart. They’re so delighted to be involved, which is not exactly what you usually get with this genre.

Director Lisa Hurwitz and writer Michael Levine take care to mix in both the personal and the societal here. The Automat doesn’t shy away from how important the commissary was to low income families, to be sure. However, it’s more about the personal memories of the talking heads. As they recall their good times there, it’s clear how much it meant to them. Imagine someone saying these things about a Burger King? You won’t, and the duo of Hurwitz and Levine use that to their advantage. While it’s not a stylish documentary, the film is very short, well paced, and makes you smile.

The Automat is about as minor a documentary subject as there is, but the warmth in the execution sets it apart. Plus, where else can you see Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, and Howard Schultz all wax poetic about the same topic? If nothing else, the doc will make you long for the chance to have dined at this very unique kind of establishment.

SCORE: ★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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