Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat is a lovely look back at, well, the automat. Specifically, the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants found in Philadelphia and New York City, from their beginnings in 1888 right down to the closing of their last location in 1991. At the height of their popularity, their restaurants were feeding hundreds of thousands of people, in beautiful, clean buildings, for just a nickel.
Hurwitz’s homage to the automat hit a little different than she probably intended when she went looking for famous New Yorkers who knew Horn & Hardart in its heyday. She managed to get some big-name customers, including Mel Brooks, Elliot Gould, and three people who have since died: Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Carl Reiner. Watching them wax poetic about how much the restaurants meant to them growing up is particularly moving. Her documentary might not have been as emotional of a watch had all the participants still been alive.
The Automat covers the subject quite thoroughly, especially the early history of Horn & Hardart. It would’ve been interesting to see a little more of the decline of the automat, as that section of the film felt a bit rushed. As for Brooks, he’s prominent throughout the film, even singing an original song. His presence makes him seem like an unofficial host, and the film might’ve benefited had it been structured in that way. The documentary itself, while competently made, did feel more like something you’d see on PBS in the vein of the delightful documentaries from Rick Sebak like Sandwiches That You Will Like (2002) and A Hot Dog Program (1996). I adore his shows, but they definitely lack a polish. Likewise, The Automat is rather like a nickel slice of pie or bowl of mac & cheese you’d get from one of their restaurants. It’s not fancy, but it’s good.
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