I should probably get this pun out of the way before we go any further: The Kitchen does indeed suffer from too many cooks in, well, you see where i’m heading with this…
For a film that had evident fruitful backing from a major studio, an intriguing premise, and a sizeable A-list cast, it’s a downright shame that The Kitchen can’t mesh its ingredients together in a manner that will satisfy many an appetite.
With clumsy editing and an uneven tone – one moment the film relishes its violent content, the next its aiming for comedic effect – Andrea Berloff’s crime drama never seems to want to commit to being a gritty film with unlikable protagonists. The potential is there though, and with three reliable character actresses in Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, The Kitchen very well could have been a companion piece to the similarly themed, though infinitely superior Widows (an overlooked masterpiece if ever there was one).
Alas no, The Kitchen skates by on minimalistic effort, wasting its trio of leading ladies in the process and watering down, whilst simultaneously glamourising the world of organised crime. McCarthy, who has proved her worth as a dramatic actress having only just come off her Oscar-nominated turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, does what she can as the motherly Kathy, who has to unexpectedly fend for herself when her nice-guy gangster husband (Brian d’Arcy James) is sent away for a three-year stretch in prison following a robbery gone wrong.
Kathy isn’t alone in her predicament though when her husband’s associates (James Badge Dale and Jeremy Bobb) are nabbed in the same bust, leaving their wives (Haddish and Moss, respectively) in financial uncertainty also. The idea of these three seemingly harmless gangster wives rising up the ranks of organised crime in 1970’s New York City is one ripe with rich possibility, and had Berloff perhaps tightened the reins and been unafraid to truly showcase the brutal mentality one would need to harness to succeed in such a position of power, The Kitchen could have been something genuinely investing.
There seems to be a fear of alienating the audience, almost as if Berloff is scared that presenting a usually likeable actress such as McCarthy in a role that’s far removed from her typical persona would hurt the overall product. The same applies to Haddish, who flirts with being the most villainous of the three – thanks in large part to the emotional battering she receives from her mobster mother-in-law (an underused Margo Martindale) – but seems to find redemption on the script pages whenever she commits to the criminal temperament.
The Kitchen doesn’t prove entirely flawed though with the one main ace up its sleeve being Moss. As someone initially meek and constantly abused, she receives the truest plot arc of the film as we see her become gradually hardened by her new life of crime. Playing against the safe likability afforded to McCarthy and Haddish, Moss’s character is shown performing murderous acts – and, in some instances, disposing of their bodies – which ironically warms us to her as she appears as the only authentic player amongst the melodramatic chaos.
Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson as Moss’s love interest, a war vet with perhaps a few loose screws, also provides the film with a much needed jolt of energy, and it’s the sequences the film devotes to the two where The Kitchen comes genuinely alive. The chemistry they share and the support their characters show each other represent the imperfect nature of (mostly) good people doing bad things, a temperament the film should’ve adopted for all its characters.
A film that should’ve been tougher and embraced its dirty material rather than dip its toe before cleaning it profusely, The Kitchen is more a disappointment than an all out disgrace. The acting is competent enough across the board though, and the story occasionally zags when you’re expecting a zig, but considering the ingredients on hand, I should’ve been demanding seconds rather than settling for mediocrity.
About The Kitchen
New York City, 1978. The 20 blocks of pawnshops, porn palaces and dive bars between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River owned by the Irish mafia and known as Hell’s Kitchen was never the easiest place to live. Or the safest. But for mob wives Kathy, Ruby and Claire–played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss–things are about to take a radical, dramatic turn. When their husbands are sent to prison by the FBI the women take business into their own hands, running the rackets and taking out the competition…literally. Now they own the neighborhood.
The Kitchen (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from August 29th 2019.