Yeah, so this is going to be a bit more straight forward than how I typically start off my reviews. Not that I’m in a rush or anything, but I feel like I just have to get to the point with this one and unload a little bit along the way.
Unload, isn’t fair. I believe in true constructive criticism and as a creative, the honest journey of filmmaking being a collaborative effort is to tell the best story. “The Kitchen” is most certainly a collaborative effort… … ... that’s what it has going for it.
It just doesn’t tell the best story.
3 Mob wives, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elizabeth Moss) live in the shadows of their criminal husbands in Hell’s Kitchen, NY during the late 60’s. One night the men get busted when heist goes wrong and get sent to prison. The rest of the Irish mob is tasked to look after the women and their families. When they don’t, our trio uses their wits and wiles to do what their husbands did, but better. So much so, they squeeze out the only person in their way to get the life they truly deserved and must figure out how to keep that life when their husbands are ultimately released from prison and return home.
This is an effort to tell the best story, but we’re left with a film that doesn’t know exactly what to say, how to say it, who it should say it to, or why?
As a DC guy and a slightly above average comic book Blerd, I’ve heard of “The Kitchen” series but was unfamiliar with the story. As I followed the trades and casting; the prospect of seeing some of the biggest talents in Hollywood team up for a gritty crime drama was appealing. Now, I’ve been down this road before with middling results…i.e. “Widows”. An even bigger cast with solid dramatic chops and a Director who proclaimed this was the story he’s been waiting his entire career to tell.
I didn’t love that film. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are in their prime and I was willing to look past “Widows” and on to a period crime drama that was going to be real, violent, vicious, yet empowering. Then we saw the first trailer, then the second, and then we hear about delayed press screenings and the backing out of Thursday night previews at theater chains across the country.
Come on movie, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
I was still willing to look past all of that, and at this point maybe my expectations would be so low it wouldn’t have to work that hard to leave me impressed.
Nope, nope, nope. Insert “Shannon Sharpe” GIF of him shaking his head.
What was going on here? Andrea Berloff was a writer whose work I was familiar with in “Straight Out of Compton” and with this being her directorial debut, I wasn’t expecting a home run, but at least a single. This was closer to a scraggly bunt rolled right to the pitcher. Maybe, writing and directing this project was biting off more than she could chew. The direction of this film is peculiar and mainly because of its tone. Much of what we get on screen feels very stiff in its narrative and the performances reflected that. The story progressed very traditional and the editing was emblematic of a script that was amateurish at best. Many of the scenes felt like vignettes and played out like an extra-long SNL sketch that made these actors look like they were playing cops and robbers.
As I digest all that I saw and look deeper I can see good bones. There’s a skeleton of potential where if you did this and tweaked that, we’d be on to something, but there were glaring sequences that felt inauthentic because none of the characters had clear goals to pursue. And, if they did they weren’t depicted well enough to make that evident and so it feels unhinged.
Claire, is a beaten and battered Mob wife crippled by the fear of her abusive and brutish husband. Elizabeth moss does the best with what she had at conveying gripping emotion and a subtle spiraling psychosis. She states early in the film that she would never be a victim again. She kept her word, as she completely flips the script and becomes a sociopath. More and more losing her tether to reality and its emboldened by her coupling with an even more toxic man who reenters into her life. Not every film needs to say something, but if this is… who are you saying it to? Bad husbands? Abused wives? If this isn’t instructional and more presentational than the execution must be on point.
Kathy is the presumed leader of this trio and carries herself as such yet is met with a lot of opposition that we see on the surface, but the script never takes the time to flesh out what’s underneath. Is there an inequity brewing amidst these women that creates distrust even in this dangerous endeavor? If there is, why and how does Kathy combat this onscreen? She doesn’t. Melissa McCarthy looks great and fits so well in to this throwback I was partly craving for this to be a singular story. Her voice, her movements, her delivery were good, but bogged down by a character whose goals were the most unclear and cinematically unfulfilling. We’ve been inundated with icons like Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, Frank Lucas, Frank Costello, Tommy DeVito. Kathy’s goal isn’t to walk in similar shoes as these giants of cinema but should operate in a way that is honest to her character’s nature and be magnified by her actions. Kathy talks the talk but never walks it and you’re lock step with her the whole way and doing mental math to who she is and what people think she is and things don’t seem to add up. If that were a character defect it would be an intriguing layer to her performance to peel back. Because it’s not, it just another symptom of not-great writing.
Then you have some characters, who no matter how you write them just don’t work. This comes from an absolute place of adoration; Tiffany Haddish gives the worst onscreen performance of the year. It’s not for lack of trying either. She’s a big name and I can’t fault a studio or a casting director for reeling in a big fish. However, when you ask a standup comedienne to do a 180 and be the Co-lead in a gritty period crime drama on her first try, you kind of knew what you could get. There’s no reacting, just flat line delivery without any nuance and frustrating timing throughout the film. It’s the type of performance that stifles the way most of the cast can play off her. A good director can craft a story to play to their performers strengths. There’s nothing wrong in stretching an actor’s range but when that is very limited to begin with you have to switch course.
The tone of this film already was a bit wonky, so go the other way and be a gritty crime comedy. We haven’t had one of those in a while and would’ve ended up playing to this casts strong suits. You take this same skeleton and fill it with laughs that bite and still express the same themes, if there were any. Let the fight back against patriarchal midtown New York have levity and a bit more authenticity because of who’s in the film. There’s more grace given to a comedy with sprinkles of drama than the other way around especially when we’re busy poking holes into what drives these women and their reasons why.
“The Kitchen” is like the first time you audited a long form Improv class who had a Mob theme night. There are some vets who know what they’re doing but get drowned out by an insane amount of music to mask the instructor’s poor direction. Not-so-good actors hamming it up, chewing up the scenery and just when they get to something good, the instructor once again gets in the way. The cinematography does nothing special, and the production design is plucked from, “name a generic backlot”. In this kitchen all these ingredients amount to narrative “Huh”, a tonal frustration thrown in a pot of “Why?” to produce a half-baked loaf of “I Can’t Believe I just Watched This”
KOLBYTOLDME RATING- 4/10
Director: Andrea Berloff
Writer: Andrea Berloff
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 102 mins