It’s a low-down dirty shame that The Kitchen, so eager to extol the empowerment of erasing expectations, fails in part because of its arduous attachment to its stars’ predictable personae.
Playing Irish mafia wives tending to their palooka husbands’ protection-racket business in 1978 Hell’s Kitchen while the men are in prison — and far superior to those brutish bozos — Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish cling to charisma that goes for chummy rather than chum in the water in this crime-drama. McCarthy has gone to dark places before without giving a damn about feeling likable and Haddish proved she was up to the challenge last year with The Oath. But even as their machinations grow monstrous, The Kitchen confines both women to modest-volume versions of their traditional shticks.
The result is a film that too often asks its inherently feminist premise to prop up the proceedings in place of legitimate character work. Indeed, the very plot turn through which the women ascend to the top rung feels narratively arbitrary and unchallenged in any meaningful way that deepens their resolve. Strangest of all, these women never seem to strike any real fear in the meek men who surround them on all sides. That’s where the devilish fun should emerge in a story that deviates from the usual mob-wife mea culpas, but that would require something more than pawns too easily delivered into grace or pressure.
At least Elisabeth Moss gets a real living, sometimes fire-breathing human to play in Claire, who rounds out the trio of Kathy (McCarthy) and Ruby (Haddish). Taking the reins transforms Claire from a punching bag whose weak spot everyone wallops into a resoundingly immovable object. When summoned by a rival as apt to remove her hand as shake it, Claire isn’t merely unfazed. She’s thrilled. So what if she’s whacked? They only do that to people who are the danger. But even her storyline — kicked off by a Domhnall ex machina, with Domhnall Gleeson’s beady-eyed, unstable trigger man who literally shows up out of nowhere — leads to an unceremonious and indifferent conclusion.
Claire indulges in the headshot kills you might expect and the cutting down of corpses into easily sunken afterthoughts that you might not. But the film’s most memorably violent moment involving her whiffs the opportunity to elevate The Kitchen into a meditation on misapplied kindness and loyalty. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that Oscar-nominated writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) envisioned, for her directorial debut, a mob movie too hesitant to even modestly trouble moms in the crowd.
Or one whose storytelling this skittish and scattershot. Characters are awkwardly introduced, conflicts arise from nowhere, the Scarface party montage happens five minutes after the trio’s teary declaration of purpose, and a third-act turn feels laughably tossed in. (Adapted from a DC comic book of the same name, this story would benefit from a considerably roomier canvas.) So disjointed is The Kitchen’s rhythm that characters talk about confrontations you’d much rather see. Plus, Berloff’s visual aesthetic was served no favors by poor preview-screening projection that rendered Maryse Alberti’s cinematography into a zero-contrast mush of dreary darkness.
There are so many reasons why The Kitchen should’ve been unable to miss. Not even pulling the trigger? That’s the most disappointing of all.