Halfway through the new period crime drama The Kitchen, the three leads stride confidently down a New York street towards the car driven by their muscle. They get to the car, and two of them get in; the third tries to open the remaining door, before snapping to the driver, “It’s locked.” The driver unlocks the door, letting the third lead in, and they drive off. There’s literally no reason for the door to be locked — it’s a weird stumble in a short scene that serves as a microcosm of the utterly nonsensical pacing, tone, and character motivations in The Kitchen. This film has a killer cast, and wastes them in a baffling, atonal mess.
It’s 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, and the aforementioned trio of protagonists are the henpecked, battered wives of three Irish criminals. There’s the bruised and shy Claire (Elisabeth Moss), the outspoken but shunned Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and the maternal but voiceless Kathy (Melissa McCarthy). One night, their husbands take part in a robbery that goes south and ends with them being sent to jail for three years. The Irish mob that’s left over barely helps the three women out, which drives them to go into the business for themselves.
The basic setup of The Kitchen may seem reminiscent of last year’s exemplary crime drama Widows, in which a trio of seemingly meek and powerless women, after their men are removed from the picture, take over in their criminal activities. Though The Kitchen is based on a DC/Vertigo comic miniseries, it’s an unfortunate parallel because Widows was one of the best films of 2018, and The Kitchen is not even the best film of 2019 I’ve seen this month. (I type this sentence a few days before seeing The Angry Birds Movie 2, so this may not even be the best film of 2019 co-starring Tiffany Haddish I see this week.) The premise, similar or not to another film, is intriguing enough. But somewhere along the line, The Kitchen got lost in translation.
It’s hard to know how much can be laid at the foot of writer/director Andrea Berloff. Not having read the source material, I don’t know if she’s made a truly faithful adaptation or if she couldn’t turn that material into a viable 100-minute movie. (Or, equally possible: whatever film she tried to made got radically pared down to the 100-minute movie being released in theaters this week.) What is clear is that The Kitchen struggles mightily to make character motivations understandable, even from scene to scene. When the three women first attempt to take over as the protection for local businesses, the established Mob is understandably upset. The first act of reprisal occurs in haphazard fashion, as a goon forces himself upon the still-meek Claire until he’s blown away by…Domhnall Gleeson, playing a Vietnam vet who she knows from the old days, even though we are literally introduced to him through this murder.
Things like this happen often in The Kitchen. Plot developments, characters, and motivations are brought up almost on a whim, random chance driving the film to its conclusion more than logical decisions. In the early going, it seems like the basic conflict within The Kitchen will be whether the women can grapple with the fact that even as they become more self-reliant and confident, they do so at the risk of becoming just as cold-blooded and ruthless as their husbands. Kathy’s father, specifically, keeps pushing at his daughter for her increasingly criminal and violent activities. But then, the film’s focus shifts: the conflict is what will happen when the women’s husbands exit prison, and how they’ll handle being led around by women in an extremely misogynistic era. But then, the film’s focus shifts again, and so on and so on.
What makes all of the storytelling confusion so frustrating is that Berloff is working with a murderer’s row of actors, and they’re all doing their able best to make this dross tolerable. McCarthy, fresh off her second Academy Award nomination in the excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me?, cuts an appropriate figure as Kathy, even as the character’s innate intelligence is required to be suppressed whenever she deals with her oafish husband. Haddish, known primarily for her outrageous comedy, fits in well as a tough outsider with hidden reserves of selfishness. And it’s no surprise that Moss dives into the role of Claire with relish. (Her scenes with Gleeson, in which they blend an awkward romance with Claire’s growing interest in exceptionally bloody murders, are the film’s best parts, primarily because the two actors are so enjoyable to watch.) That’s to say nothing of the supporting cast, including Character Actress Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Common, and James Badge Dale.
But oh, that story. The Kitchen wants to tell a tale of female empowerment, mixed with antihero-style dramatics straight out of mobster epics like GoodFellas. The Scorsese-style touch is all well and good, and letting women take over for idiotic and violent men is overdue. The concept of this movie works. The cast works. The story, either because it was hobbled from the start or because it was gutted to shreds in the editing room, flat-out fails. There’s maybe a good movie, or a good limited TV series, to make from The Kitchen. But this film, in its seemingly truncated 100-minute form, is nowhere near good.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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