The Kitchen, 2019.
Written and Directed by Andrea Berloff.
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb, E.J. Bonilla, Wayne Duvall, Annabella Sciorra, and Myk Watford.
The wives of New York gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s continue to operate their husbands’ rackets after they’re locked up in prison.
For a movie that tosses three women into the oven known as Hell’s Kitchen, a man’s world as the soundtrack reminds us over the opening credits, success sort of comes easy for the trio. That’s a shame considering these women (who are struggling financially after the FBI raids their mobster husbands placing them in jail for three years each) should be facing an uphill battle for obvious reasons; they are women in the 70s not just trying to work, but run rackets and carry out standard mobster duties. For some perspective, it can’t be more than 25 minutes into The Kitchen before each of the ladies is counting cash and sporting something new about themselves.
Realism and accuracy are far from the film’s worst problems, though, as The Kitchen‘s rushed narrative trajectory never really allows the central women to show any depth. It could be argued that Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy turns into a complex person with intriguing lifestyle views by the end, but it takes nearly the entire length of the story for that to happen. Also within the first 30 minutes, Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is physically abused and almost sexually assaulted twice; thankfully, she is so damn talented that she takes the mediocre and cartoonish material and turns it into something sympathetic. If more of the movie were about her overcoming traumatic experiences and using her entry into gangster life as a means to an end regarding never being taken advantage of again, the story would be more compelling and engaging. Elisabeth Moss is great in everything and is still the front runner for Best Actress as far as I’m concerned for her work in Her Smell, but it’s a testament to her ability that she can elevate a film that is so unfocused and sloppily executed, almost saving the project.
A greater disservice is done to Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) as a black woman in the 70s married to an Irishman mobster, also having to deal with an outspoken racist mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). Her very existence in these illegal activities should be more intriguing and suspenseful than the standard white women doing the same thing, but The Kitchen doesn’t really know how to flesh out any of its characters. None of them feel like real people, just a bunch of ideas and concepts meant to further themes while leading to a series of payoffs in the final act that never quite land because if there’s anyone we care less about in this movie, it’s the supporting cast. Going back to Claire for a second, her character arc transforming from doormat to capable self-defender basically involves a stud played by Domhnall Gleeson returning to the city (there was heat on him within the gang forcing him to lay low) immediately starting a relationship with her. He teaches her how to fire a gun, dismember bodies, and feed them to the fishes. That’s her story… which is why I really mean hats off to Elisabeth Moss for being able to actually make it worthwhile.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much narratively from an adaptation of the DC Vertigo comic book instead of the Martin Scorsese lite gangster tale The Kitchen is being marketed as. Whatever the case may be, writer and director Andrea Berloff (who is actually a very talented individual, already having a screenwriting Oscar nomination for her work on Straight Outta Compton) seems to be executing the worst imitation of both of those. Something tells me the characters are still more complex in the comic book and the scenes that feel directly inspired by Goodfellas miss the mark. Even the attempt at a memorable musical score falls flat due to needle drops that once again, feel too on the nose, although I’m not going to complain too much about any movie that goes out of its way to feature The Chain twice.
Nevertheless, the majority of the issues with The Kitchen could be resolved by simply rushing the story less. It’s hard to feel like there any real stakes when the characters face such little opposition; at times they are their own worst enemies. There’s also a frustratingly telegraphed plot twist with too much foreshadowing. It makes me wonder how much of the first act was cut up, as it does nothing to excite viewers for what’s to come, even during the third act that is basically just a series of crowd-pleasing moments and saddening shocks. Maybe there just weren’t enough cooks in the kitchen to really tighten the script up. The direction itself is solid and certainly evokes the late 70s along with the look and feel of similar gangster pictures, but the story leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. It’s a shame considering a feminist mobster picture sounds awesome on paper. Instead, The Kitchen plays like a dumbed-down version of last year’s criminally overlooked Widows.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com