Unlike its leads, The Kitchen gets muddled when it skews more ambitious.
Though the film straddles the line between comedy and drama, a curious phenomenon kept happening at this reviewer’s screening of The Kitchen. An adaptation of a little known graphic novel from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, the movie follows a group of women in late ‘70s Hell’s Kitchen, New York, who take over crime in the neighborhood while their respective husbands are in prison. The plot dispenses with many borderline laughable gangster movie tropes, only the hook is that now the ladies are meting out the violence and graft. But despite the comparatively tame approach to violence, any time one of the women did anything remotely confrontational, or cursed, or held a gun, audience members reacted like they were watching Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom. Why?
It’s not that the lead performances are particularly unsettling or hyper-realistic. Melissa McCarthy, as den mother Kathy Brennan, delivers her best and most versatile performance outside of last year’s Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?; but stylistically, she largely colors inside the lines of crowd pleasing charm. Ditto Elizabeth Moss as the most tortured of the wives, Claire Walsh, the one with the darkest and most drastic character arc. Sure, she does sterling work and portrays plenty of complexity, but she’s working within the confines of a mainstream genre picture, with plenty of space for laugh lines and reassuring winks at the viewer.
Only Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby O’Carroll seems completely devoid of comedic undertones, but that creative decision leaves her without an anchor through a pretty murky subplot. In a role that doesn’t play to her considerable strengths, Haddish has moments of brilliance but largely feels miscast. In this trio, nobody’s crossing any lines or pushing the audience into uncomfortable places more disturbing or harrowing than any Scorsese movie or the dozens of lesser films made in his wake. Unless, of course, that discomfort lies solely in watching an entire movie that couches crime fiction thrills in the language of gender equality.
Because as much as writer-director Andrea Berloff is having fun making a studio gangster drama, The Kitchen is very much in line with A League of Their Own or 9 to 5, star-studded, female centered comedies that spend the majority of the runtime confronting the audience with blunt-force social commentary blatantly meant to bait sexist men into rolling their eyes while (in theory) their wives grin, whoop and holler. Which may explain why, when Domnhall Gleeson shows up as the erstwhile cousin with a violent streak to help the girls out, the men in this reviewer’s row oohed and ahhed at him blithely firing a pistol, but jumped in their seats like someone was beneath them aiming for castration when Haddish’s Ruby arranged to have a man killed.
While it’s laudable that the film is so short and moves at such a brisk pace, anytime it strays from this basic storytelling and teeing up moments for each of its leads to shine, The Kitchen errs, trying to shoehorn a twisty noir narrative into the gutters of a movie that would be a lot happier popping the crowd every time McCarthy tells her dad how she’s in charge now. Maybe a film that stayed in its lane and kept things easy would be more low-hanging fruit, but unlike its leads, the film gets muddled when it skews more ambitious.
Subplots that explore the racial divisions of ‘70s NYC gang culture or the tribalism of neighborhood solidarity require a deft hand and a subtle touch. But they just don’t come together; they don’t have room to breathe without the longer character arcs that might have functioned better in a comic or a television adaptation. As a movie, this is an effective genre piece that’s more fun than not, more sincere than most, and less self-serious than the marketing materials might have suggested. But it tries a little too hard to have its cake and eat it, too.