Fresh off an Oscar nomination for co-writing Straight Outta Compton, Andrea Berloff has adapted a DC comic book series and turned it into easily one of the worst films of 2019. It all sounded promising enough. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as Farrah-haired, New York City 70s gangster wives who take over for their jailed husbands and assert their street-strutting feminine power? Sign me up! The trailer looked edgy and kickass and I couldn’t wait to Fleetwood Mac the hell out of this film.
Then the film started. A concise and economical setup introduces our main characters fairly well. McCarthy plays Kathy, who sweetly loves her husband Jimmy (Brian d”Arcy James). Haddish’s Ruby suffers stoically with a philandering husband (James Badge Dale) and a racist monster-in-law (the always solid Margo Martindale). Finally Moss’ Claire has an abusive spouse (Jeremy Bobb from Russian Doll), as if the weekly suffering she experiences on The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t enough. Taste levels come into question immediately, however, when Berloff chooses to overlay the sequence with the overused song, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. She may as well have thrown a #metoo chyron onto the screen, because, yes folks, subtlety and this movie won’t be hanging out together.
From there, a flatness permeates every single scene. I can’t blame the performances, as the actors try hard here. McCarthy wears the pain well of a dutiful wife who has sublimated her true feelings for years. She has a terrific moment where she schools her children on female beauty as just another weapon in her arsenal. Haddish eases well into drama, tamping down her wildest instincts and finding a compelling intensity, although she could dial back the glowering a notch or two. Moss finds an inner budding psychopath, easily making her the best character. Her journey from the victim of oppressive violence to stone cold killer could have existed as its own better movie. I can’t blame the well-realized production design, the nicely detailed wardrobe, or even Berloff’s script. Though dull and littered with holes, it’s at least pinging on the highly relevant and current discussion about women finding their voices and fighting back against their oppressors. I also loved a really cool shot of someone at a phone booth getting murdered, the camera, for once, expressively booming down with him as he falls.
All of these efforts, however, suffer under Berloff’s staggeringly unimaginative direction. I got the feeling she purchased a book, probably called, “How To Direct Terrible Television Procedurals From The 1980s”, and only read half and said, “Let’s do this thing!” Her idea of telling a story consists of center punching each actor or shooting over their shoulder, dollying alongside them, or occasionally tilting down towards an object on a table. Mostly, we watch two to three character scenes of people endlessly talking. When the trio rise up through the ranks via their protection money scheme, things of course turn violent, but Berloff either insisted on not showing much of it onscreen or she simply does not know how to shoot such action. It feels like she either watched Goodfellas once and thought she could wing it, or better still, it’s quite possible she’s never even seen a movie before at all. I won’t call this film inept, but it’s tacky, drab, and faceless.
It also squanders a fascinating premise. Our trio of female mobsters strong-arm their community and go on murderous rampages. They may treat people better than their predecessors, but they’re still pretty awful nonetheless. Berloff, however, wants us to believe they’re somehow good, which presents a disconnect. History has given us a slew of male film gangsters who wrestle with their terribleness, with The Godfather and Scarface leading the pack of conflicted antiheroes. In The Kitchen, our trio don’t seem to question their basest instincts, giving us characters who exist as props for the larger message at hand. By the end, we’re almost meant to think they’re decent people who helped others, with a classic pop soundtrack making it all go down so easily. What a missed opportunity to really delve into their flaws, which we merely experience in a quick moment or two.
Here and there, Berloff offers up a nice twist or surprise, and Domhnall Gleeson steals the film by literally dropping in to teach Moss a thing or two about corpse disposal. Again, it’s not a terrible script and could have been decent with a director who knows about pacing, tone, editing and visceral impact. In fact, there’s a really good film about mob wives who take over for their absent husbands. It has visual style to burn, complexity, and a director who has a unique cinematic voice. It’s called Widows. Watch that instead.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Kitchen gets a 20 out of 50. While clearly gay people didn’t live in New York City in the 70s, at least not in Hells Kitchen evidently, the film has queer appeal. If you love a flared pant, a polyester top and a dial phone, you just might enjoy aspects of the film. On the surface, its disco era setting may speak to a gay sensibility, but its execution speaks to almost nobody.
By Glenn Gaylord
The Kitchen is currently playing on wide release in the US and Canada.