By: BabyRuth (Four Beers) –
Back in the seventies, many people still felt a woman’s place was in the kitchen (and unfortunately a lot still do today… I really need to take a Twitter break). But what if that kitchen was Hell’s Kitchen and the woman’s place was as the new boss of the Irish Mafia?
The Kitchen, based on DC Entertainment’s Vertigo graphic novel series, and adapted and directed by first-timer Andrea Berloff (co-writer of Straight Outta Compton) poses this scenario.
Set in 1978 New York City, mob-wives Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Clarie (Elisabeth Moss), are left to fend for themselves after their husbands are sent to prison for three years. Though the “family” promises to take care of them financially in the interim, the paltry envelopes they receive are not even enough to cover their living expenses, especially for Kathy, who has two children.
After looking for work for exactly one day and learning there are absolutely no jobs in all of New York City, the three friends decide to do the only logical thing: take over the neighborhood racketeering business. Should be easy enough, right?
So does The Kitchen cook, or is it a grease fire? (I’m so, so, sorry, I won’t make any more cooking references.)
While at first glance this may look like a zany mob comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, it is anything but that and McCarthy and Haddish both fully commit to the weightier material than they normally get to take on. Of course, weighty material is Elisabeth Moss’s thing, and she’s perfect. Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Camp also give strong performances in supporting roles.
The most interesting sub-plot involves Moss and Gleeson’s characters and they have wonderful chemistry. I kept wishing for the pair to run off together and star in their own movie.
Berloff does a fantastic job in recreating the graffitied and grimy New York City of the late 70s. You could practically smell the urine. Likewise, the costume design and hair/make-up are on point. The film is a whole lot of fun to look at.
Finally, I did learn the most efficient way to prepare a corpse to ensure successful disposal in the Hudson River, so there’s that…
On paper, this sure looks like a winner. Three very talented and popular stars, an Oscar-nominated writer making her directorial debut, and some meaty source material obscure enough that it feels like an original idea in the current landscape of reboots and sequels.
But you know when you’re following a recipe and you don’t have one of the ingredients, so you substitute something else, and then you’re short on time so instead of preheating the oven you turn the temperature up higher and cook it for less time, and then you aren’t sure how to “fold in” the ingredients in so you just kind of stir everything together?
I’m sorry. I know I said I wouldn’t do that, but I really promise this time. No more cooking/kitchen references!
The point is, you can start with a great recipe and the best ingredients but then somehow it gets really messed up in the execution and ends up an inedible mess but everyone tries to be polite and they’re all “Oh Ruth, this is so good!” but you know they’re lying because it’s shit? That’s what happened with The Kitchen. It had so much potential, but it got messed up.
Real messed up.
The biggest problem is the pacing. The characters hilariously go from baking cookies to ordering hits in ten minutes and a montage. It’s never clear how much time has passed, and when a character does make a reference to time (“Our husbands have twenty-four more months in their sentences”) their progress and character development seem rushed and unrealistic. Motivations rarely feel natural and are barely explained as there’s never enough build-up. Supporting characters are introduced abruptly and many are quickly forgotten. Plot points are dropped, including a “major” twist three-quarters of the way through that the film that has hardly any payoff. There’s somewhat of a build to an explosive ending, but then it just kind of fizzles out and ends with a thud.
While many films would benefit from being shorter, this one really needed to be longer. The editing and scene jumps make the film play out like a “previously on…” recap intro to a series, showing surface-level plot points. Speaking of, that probably would have been a better format for this film instead of cramming everything into a brisk 102 minutes.
The tone is all over the place as well. Most of the time, things are played dead-straight (I get it, two of the three leads are mostly known for their comedic work, so this is a chance for them to flex their dramatic chops), but then there are a few scattered attempts at dark comedy. But neither fully works and often things not meant to be humorous are (like Myk Watford’s over-the-top Al Pacino impression), and things meant to be funny are not (the comeuppance of a despicable character). On the plus-side, at least Melissa McCarthy didn’t have to do any pratfalls.
Mob characters are tough to get on board with– after all, they’re pretty terrible people who do awful things to others, many of whom don’t deserve it. In order for an audience to care about them, they need to be written in a way that perfectly balances a line. The viewer must be able to sympathize with the character, even while knowing they do horrible things (see: The Sopranos). Part of the work falls on the actor, but in this case, they are not to blame. In fact, the three leads are so good that I tried very hard to continue to root for them, but after a certain point, I just gave up and stopped caring what happened to them. Okay, maybe with the exception of Elisabeth Moss’s character. A little bit.
Berloff tries very hard to make us very sorry for the women by showing them getting physically and emotionally abused to an uncomfortable point. But even with the countless times they’re called a cunt or punched in the gut (again, there is a LOT of this), it doesn’t justify the loathsome people they turn into who are just as bad as their abusers. It shows cause and effect, but Berloff not only wants us to feel that it excuses the characters’ actions, but cheer them on as well in one of the most misguided attempts at “Girl Power” I have ever seen. Obviously, at least partially inspired by the #MeToo movement (Annabelle Sciorra even makes an appearance and is wonderful as always) we are expected to applaud the three women for claiming their power, but they are so detestable and do such terrible things, it makes it impossible. When they strut down the street flaunting the expensive jewelry, they “collected,” it’s not a “You go girl” moment, it’s an “oh, that poor nice Jewish store owner didn’t deserve that” moment.
I’m not saying women can’t make for good gangsters, but the way these characters are written chips away at any goodwill they begin with until there’s nothing left.
Though everything is great looking and period-appropriate, this film often feels too try-hard, relying on graphic violence, gore, and profanity to create the mood. Of course, these elements come with the territory of mafia-related entertainment, but in cases when it’s done right, it blends into the story and adds authenticity. But here, it feels forced and desperate. I never once forgot that I was watching a movie. The dialogue is clichéd and feels even more so with the affected New York accents. Most supporting characters are two-dimensional caricatures (Margo Martindale deserves so much better!). Even the soundtrack is so obvious, you can predict what song is going to accompany the next montage of the women counting piles of cash.
Great concept, great cast, I was excited for this one and had high hopes. I wanted it to be great. It could have been, but it just wasn’t. I guess I should get around to finally checking out Widows (2018), which I hear is everything this movie tries to be.
The Kitchen (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a character does
Take a Drink: whenever a woman is catcalled
Take a Drink: for every funeral scene
Take a Drink: every time a body is dumped in the river
Take a Drink: whenever someone is shot
Take a Drink: whenever a character says
Do a Shot: for the twist
Do a Shot: if you catch the Donald Trump joke. Do another Shot: when it reminds you of where he is today. Repeat as necessary.