PLOT: After their gangster husbands are sent away on a three-year-stretch, three women (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss) take over their collections, eventually rising in power to the point that they start to dominate their Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
REVIEW: I don’t know quite where to begin with THE KITCHEN. It’s rare that a movie that has so many things going for it, namely a top-shelf cast, a healthy budget, major studio backing, and a cool premise, so utterly and completely fails. Right from the start THE KITCHEN is so awkwardly put together and acted (with some exceptions that I’ll get to later) that you feel like you’re watching an SNL spoof of the movie the studio sold you. What happened?
It definitely feels like there were too many cooks in THE KITCHEN (I’m sorry – you can’t review a movie called THE KITCHEN without at least one cheesy pun), with it veering clumsily from camp to all-out comedy and then violent tragedy all within moments of each other. It feels like several folks had a hand in the editing, resulting in a project that feels anything but seamless.
Melissa McCarthy, who killed in the recent CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, feels utterly miscast as the main mob wife, whose husband, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is the only one of the men who doesn’t immediately come off as a monster. She seems unsure how to play her role, at times getting perilously close to shtick, with lots of scenes of her strutting around her neighborhood like cut scenes from THE BOSS. You can’t blame her though – the role is badly constructed so no wonder she had trouble playing it. They seem to want to convey she’s becoming a mobster, but then you never actually see her doing anything that might alienate her audience. They want you to like her too much, which is deadly for a gangster film. Imagine if you’d never seen Tony Soprano or Montana doing anything bad? For all the talk of how those characters glamorized crime, THE KITCHEN is far worse, watering things down so much that you never really feel like there will ever be any consequences for anyone to deal with.
Likewise, Tiffany Haddish is saddled with an ill-conceived character, with her motivations only emerging later in the film – and never really making sense. Like McCarthy, you get a sense that the studio is too afraid of turning off her fans, so whenever she does something that could be considered cold-blooded; they bend over backward to make sure you’re on her side. There’s a scene between her and her mother that’s so clumsy the audience I saw this with kept chuckling, even though it was supposed to be this gritty, authentic moment. It’s anything but.
However, THE KITCHEN has two aces up its sleeve. One is Elisabeth Moss, as the third, battered mob wife (her husband is played by a monstrous Jeremy Bobb) and of them all, she’s the only one with a real arc. You see how she gets hardened by the life, in a way discovering her true self as they get deeper, and being the only one who’s not playing against type, they don’t hesitate to show her murdering people and disposing of the bodies. She’s the only one who feels real.
The same thing goes for Domhnall Gleeson as her love interest, a half-crazed war vet who comes back to town to protect her once her husband goes away, and proves to be the kind, supporting partner she always wanted – even if he’s a stone-cold killer. Their chemistry is excellent, and when they’re on-screen together the movie feels alive. Every good scene involves these two, with the standout being a bit where he shows her how to dispose of a corpse. When they’re off-screen the movie grinds to a halt, which is a big problem as both are in it less than McCarthy and Haddish.
The supporting cast is also a mixed bag, despite being loaded with talent. Margo Martindale has fun playing Haddish’s evil mother-in-law – she seems to recognize the movie for what it is and plays it accordingly. James Badge Dale, as her son, gets a thinly written part, while Common is wasted in a role that becomes ludicrous by the end. The always great Bill Camp also seems ill-cast as an Italian mobster, although I enjoyed the way he underplayed the role in contrast to just about everyone else.
It should be noted that THE KITCHEN is based on a limited run comic from DC, but whatever worked on the page is missing from this messy adaptation. Writer-director Andrea Berloff co-wrote the excellent STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON but seems out of her element here. Even the period aspect, with this being set in 1978, is wasted with it looking like they’re presenting a comedy version of the era rather than anything authentic. The soundtrack choices are all very typical of films set in this era, with oft-used tunes by the great Fleetwood Mac dominating the soundtrack. It’s also odd that they’ve somehow made a gangster film set in 1978 New York without any use or mention of drugs- realistically that’s something these mobsters would have dipped their toe into – but I suppose that wouldn’t have kept them from being likable. THE KITCHEN had the potential to be good, but it needed to be a much tougher film.