The Kitchen is a movie that should work. It has all the ingredients to make a proper, compelling, gritty and fresh gangster flick with women in the forefront playing the parts that are always male dominated. It has three talented actresses taking on those roles and delivering strong performances. The film is visually appealing and transports you to New York in the 1970s, the score does the same. It feels like a gangster movie, and yet, The Kitchen fails to capitalize on any of the above because the script is an absolute, often incoherent mess.
The film stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as Kathy, Ruby and Claire, respectively. These three ladies are the wives of members of the Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen, 1978. The film opens with each of their husbands getting ready to go out and “take care of business,” and during the brief stops at each of their houses we learn that Kathy has two kids and their life at home seems somewhat normal, that Ruby’s husband Kevin (James Badge Dale) is an entitled prick, possibly because he’s the heir to the mob that his father ran, and that Claire is abused by her husband Rob.
While this is enough for us to understand their situations at home, and I’m all for not hammering the viewer over the head with needless information, we’re just so quickly thrown into this world and things get moving so quickly that it’s hard to care about anything that’s going on almost right out of the gate. There’s just never any real time spent building things up properly and the film relies too heavily on its actors to try and salvage together some sort of story for the viewer to get on board with.
So after that brief introduction, the husband’s talk about how they have to do this one job in order to keep others from moving in on their territory. Just as they’re about to do whatever it is they’re about to do, they’re busted by the FBI, arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. With the top trio gone, Little Jackie (Myk Watford) takes over and promises the ladies that they’ll be taken care of financially while their husbands are locked up. Unfortunately, the money isn’t enough for them to survive on but Jackie tells them they’re lucky they’re getting anything and dismisses them.
The thing is, Little Jackie isn’t doing a good job of running things, as those who are supposed to pay him for protection aren’t doing so because they don’t feel like he’s looking out for them. After hearing this, the ladies look to take matters into their own hands, and they go around the neighbourhood promising that they’ll protect the local businesses so long as they receive payment and not Little Jackie.
Now, that all sounds like it makes sense, but it’s just really jarringly done in the movie. We don’t really know anything about these characters other than they’re the wives of some mobsters. Should we be rooting for them simply because they’re women and they seemed oppressed by their husbands? That’s kinda the takeaway early on, but there’s just no real depth to any of it so it feels like we’re just along for the ride instead of having any actual investment on what’s going on.
It also doesn’t help that all the supporting characters are incredibly 1-dimensional. There’s almost nobody outside of the leading trio that has any recognizable characteristics. Well, that’s not true. Domhnall Gleeson plays Gabriel O’Malley, hired muscle who helped Kevin and the crew years ago take care of some nasty business, causing him to have to disappear for a couple of years. Luckily, he returns with precision timing, rescuing Claire from an attack early on in the movie. But he’s really it. Everyone else in the mob are interchangeable, and that’s never more apparent then when they say names of certain supporting characters later on in the film like we’re supposed to know or care who they are.
The structure of the first act just feels off, as does the rest of the movie. Things just keep happening, as there’s no resistance to these ladies taking over the mob and it just doesn’t feel natural in the way it happens. It’s hinted at that having Gabriel around gives them credibility that nobody will mess with, but it’s pretty paper thin as a passing comment that’s easily missed and comes long after things are well in play.
Now, when we first met Ruby it felt like she was tired of Kevin being a jerk and that she just didn’t care to try and make him happy, yet as the first act progresses Ruby quickly becomes incredibly powerful and confident, talking down to others and just acting like the top dog. It’s something that could work if handled properly in the developmental process, but it’s not, so instead it feels really sudden and again, like something we should care about but don’t because there don’t seem to be any stakes involved. On top of this, there’s a side story of a deep hatred between Kevin’s mom, Helen (Margo Martindale), and Ruby and it’s just absurd with how it’s handled. It’s so anticlimactic and falls so flat with absolutely no upside. It’s so bad that it would’ve been better off being left out of the film altogether, which is crazy since it’s a subplot that should’ve had a major impact on the overall story.
Claire is tired of being abused, and now with Gabriel by her side, she becomes somewhat psychotic. She’s eager to kill people and cut up bodies and dispose of bodies into the river. Again, I understand the spin from being abused so long to trying to take back the power in her life, but it’s just written so poorly that it just comes off so sudden and doesn’t give the feeling that she’s someone we should root for when she does have her ‘take back’ moments.
Then there’s Kathy, who feels like the most level-headed of the three, but also the most trusting and one willing to do things for the right reasons – for the betterment of the neighbourhood over personal gain. There are less jarring moments as Kathy’s character progresses, but she still suffers from the fact that all three characters jump right into the frying pan without any real obstacles and the story just keeps chugging along while the audience waits for something of interest to take place.
The film is written and directed by Andrea Berloff, and while I’ll give her some credit on the directing front, she just isn’t a natural storyteller, which is clear as a viewer trying to piece together what’s happening and why over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes. The film is based on a Vertigo comic book series by the same name, and I’ll bet it’d work a lot better as an HBO or Netflix series, where characters and story are given room to breathe.
Unfortunately, Berloff just misses the mark on adapting the story properly, and while the performances of McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are all strong, there’s just nothing that makes the script work. It’s messy from a storytelling perspective right out of the gate and by the time the film is over it’s even messier, often choosing to simply skim over plot points and character motivations that could have made the film stronger or memorable in favour of…well, just making a mediocre movie with wasted performances, beautiful set design and strong cinematography that I simply can’t recommend.
The film looks good! I can’t knock it for that. It transports you to the 1970s, which is why it feels like such a waste that the story misfires so drastically. The sound design is also solid, but while I can give a passing grade to both of these aspects of the film, it’s really a moot point when the movie itself is just bad.
Running Hell’s Kitchen – Here we have a 9-minute behind the scenes feature that sees Berloff, as well as the cast and crew and even comic writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle chime in on the making of the film, the adaptation from the comic and how great it was working together.
Taking Over the Neighbourhood – This is a five and a half minute feature that sees the focus turn to transforming this street on New York into a street from the 70s. It’s quick, but a good watch if you’re into design. Well, that’s giving it a bit too much credit, as it’s too short to really call it good. It at least dabbles in the best parts of what this film had to offer.
Deleted Scene – For some reason they added a deleted scene here, I guess to just pad things out. It makes about as much sense as the movie, so I guess it’s on par.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Presents The Kitchen. Written & Directed by: Andrea Berloff. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Margo Martindale. Running time: 102 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Nov. 5., 2019.
Tags: Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, The Kitchen, Tiffany Haddish