The Kitchen, with its small budget, big names stars, and comic book roots, is the kind of August movie that sounds like it could turn into a sleeper classic. It’s got the the low-budget but high-quality feel to it that always seems to lead one or two August releases to turn into something more. That’s why I was so interested in seeing it, because I thought it could really have something to it.
There is something to it. There’s a gritty unflinching story in this tale of female empowerment that hearkens back to the dirty crime thrillers of the 70s and early 80s. You can see it cropping up throughout the movie. The problem is it only crops up. It never sticks around. The film can’t seem to get out of its own way, to afraid to really tackle its subject and content to simply rush through its story in order to hit the key points. The Kitchen works when it takes its time to but it’s never willing to do that for very long.
Director: Andrea Berloff
Release Date: August 9, 2019
The Kitchen, which is based on a comic book of the same name, follows Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Clair Walsh (Elisabeth Moss). The three women are the wives of high-ranking members of the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen in the late 1970s. When their respective husbands are sent to prison and the mob won’t help support them like they should the women decide to take over the “family” business by… well, it’s not really clear how they take over actually. Nothing is really clear for the first quarter of the film.
Despite coming in at only an hour and forty-five minutes, a scant running time for a dramatic film these days, the movie rushes through nearly the entire set up. We are rapidly and carelessly introduced to the three women’s home lives, building almost no relationship with them or their characters before we’re asked to care about their plight against the rest of the crime family. We are then forcibly told that they have taken over much of the family’s extortion business with little care for tension or drama until finally the movie decides to actually start and settle down, focusing in on the three women’s struggles to maintain their newly-founded empire. There’s no cohesion until this moment, though. No connections made with the characters and no dramatic pull aside from a series of scenes slap together to construct a plot. I rarely say this, but another ten minutes on the running time would have really helped this film out.
When the film does finally decide its done rushing through itself, a moment which coincides with the arrival of a delightfully twisted Domhnall Gleeson acting as the women’s enforcer and Clair’s lover, it turns into the crime movie you hoped it would be. The drama ratchets as the pressures of running a crime syndicate began to encroach in on the women. We’re shown the increasing violence in their lives and the pressure its putting on all of them, especially as they discover that their husbands will be getting out much sooner than anticipated. The film truly does shine as the women maneuver their way in the world of organized crime in New York City and it’s an absolute blast to watch these three actresses kick ass.
That is, until it isn’t. Once the movie needs to wrap up it launches right back into its rush to get story out. As everything begins to come to a head, with the woman’s husbands getting out of jail sooner than thought the characters once again begin to be shoved along carelessly. There’s a fissure between Ruby and Kathy that comes out of nowhere and the movie struggles to walk the think line between telegraphing its plot and foreshadowing, and decides instead to do neither, leaving its twisting conclusion to land with a giant thud. Just as the movie gets its feet they start to run away from it again.
None of this should fall on the actors, who are the strongest form of throughline for the movie. Haddish and McCarthy play fantastically off each other even when the film can’t get out of its own poor construction. Meanwhile, Moss delivers a borderline psychotic performance that outpaces almost everyone else in the movie. If the screenplay had actually be up to the actors we’d be talking about three of the best female performances of the year, but instead our leads are stuck saying clunky lines that want to be layered with female empowerment but feel more like platitudes. We are repeatedly told what to think instead of shown why to think it and not even the talented cast can make that work.
The Kitchen delivers on a lot of that gritty 70s/80s crime thriller promise tonally. First time director Andrea Berloff clearly has an eye for grabbing the visual flare of the era but she can’t hold her film together otherwise. There’s a solid little mob movie in the middle of The Kitchen but its surrounded by what feel like two expository montages of little import and even less impact. With a bit more cooking the film could have come out fine but this dish should have never been served like this.