There’s a lot of frustration that comes with a movie equipped with all it needs to deliver the goods. The Kitchen is that kind of film. It features a strong cast of lead and supporting roles taking on a gangster plotline focused on mob wives taking matters into their own hands in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen. That seems like a can’t miss premise. And yet, here’s a film that gets away with delivering on a lot of terrific individual scenes, without putting them all together to create a movie with enough urgency. There’s an uneasy rhythm seen throughout The Kitchen, and it holds it back from being a killer crime flick.
Part of the issue is editing. Even as things get started, there’s no great flow to how things are setup. As an audience, we are immediately thrown into 1978 Hell’s Kitchen, getting a sense of the three leads. Melissa McCarthy is Kathy, a devoted wife to Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) and mother of two. Tiffany Haddish is Ruby, a black woman who married into an Irish community. Her husband (James Badge Dale) has about as much respect for her as his scornful mobster mother (character actress Margo Martindale). Elisabeth Moss is Claire, wife of Rob (Jeremy Bobb), who beats her.
I can credit the film for not throwing tedious narration at me (although McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss having a chance to do their best Ray Liotta-style voiceover could have been fun). At the same time, after barely establishing these mob wife personas, The Kitchen drifts along in presenting the central issue, without providing any sense of the bond these characters apparently already have. The husbands all get locked up for robbery, and since the men of the Irish mob are portrayed as terrible mobsters, Kathy, Ruby, and Claire team up to handle the racketeering themselves.
The Kitchen is at its best when engaging in its high concept. Adapted from a graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, there’s fun to be had in this fictional take on 70s New York that rubs up against reality. Oscar-nominated writer Andrea Berloff makes her directorial debut here. Her choice to engage with this material comes through clearest when having fun balancing the darkly comedic tone with the “what if” nature of the story. Real aspects such as a possible mob war over the building of the Javits Center or involving a Vietnam War vet-turned hitman (an entertaining Domhnall Gleeson) who cuts up bodies and throws them in the river provides the edge needed for a gritty comic book movie.
I only wish more could be said for how this film ties these different elements together. It is not for lack of trying on the actor’s part, as each of the leads is solid, despite working with an insufficient script. Having rocketed to higher stardom from a comedic perspective, Haddish gets a chance to be all attitude here and delivers. McCarthy plays her part completely straight as well, with the benefit of presenting a homemaker persona so naturally that her escalation into a respected crime boss is effective. Moss has a predictable arc, but since Claire is a wild card, seeing her newly acquired life of crime push her into becoming a sociopath plays well.
When these performers are working together, there’s a level of chemistry that’s good enough. However, it’s the individual scenes they share with the supporting cast making me wish the film was better. Bill Camp shows up as the head of the Brooklyn Italian crime family and makes a meal of his time with McCarthy. As husband and wife, Haddish and Dale have the tensest scene in the entire film, as their verbal sparring communicates a great sense of danger. Similarly, Haddish and Martindale know how to play up hating one another.
And yet, despite all this effort, The Kitchen has a way of casually blowing through significant plot points. Perhaps the film deserves credit for its subversive choices as far as the low regard for the men who end up standing in the way, but there’s rarely a moment where building up certain characters pays off in a more meaningful way. That’s quite impressive for a film that features more on-screen funerals than I can remember seeing in a movie in some time.
The film looks nice enough. Actually filming in New York, as opposed to Atlanta or Vancouver, helps provide a level of authenticity to the proceedings, along with all the cars and costumes working hard to show off the late 70s aesthetic. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography does not go unnoticed as far as watching a layer of crime-ridden New York atmosphere wash over this digitally-shot film. Whether or not this is just a way to work up to the other scummy DC comics crime movie hitting later this year, Joker, the effort is appreciated.
Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something felt off. Again, that makes this a frustrating experience. The Kitchen features a lot of enjoyable elements, and there’s value in having this familiar story told from the side of female characters as true power players. Yet, when a lot of period-friendly music seems to be covering the tracks of the story to ideally keep pushing us forward without asking too many questions, I get a sense something is not being properly handled. These women may have found a way to control Hell’s Kitchen, but so much power ends up with little to show for it.