by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 7, 2019

If something seems eerily familiar about writer-director Andrea Berloff’s kludgy NYC underworld potboiler The Kitchen, you’re not just imagining things. The film’s conceit – three convention-bucking Irish mob wives take control of a Hell’s Kitchen criminal fiefdom while their husbands are locked up – bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve McQueen’s riveting 2018 Chicagoland heist epic Widows. In truth, the similarities are probably just a fluke, given that both films are adaptations of other works: McQueen’s from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British television miniseries, Berloff’s from a 2015 DC Vertigo comic series by writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle. However, the proximity of the two features, with The Kitchen opening in wide release less than a year after Widows’ Toronto premiere, unavoidably calls attention to how generic and ungainly the former film feels. While Berloff’s feature boasts a solid cast, one suspects that even the best performers couldn’t salvage the screenplay, which repurposes the source material’s prickly femme fatales and 1970s scuzziness into the stuff of a confused girl-power fable. It’s as though the tepid feminism-by-committee of a late 2010’s studio blockbuster had been dropped into the hard-boiled world of a George Higgins novel and rendered incoherent in the translation.

The Kitchen’s fumbles are evident from the jump, as a muddled 1978-set prelude zips through the setup that will drive the rest of the film. What might have been an opportunity for lean-and-mean characterization – all three women and their spouses are introduced in a flurry of quick domestic scenes – just feels like a rushed succession of stiff clichés. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is the dutiful wife and mother; Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is the flinching abuse victim; and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is the belittled outsider, whose husband Kevin (James Badge Dale) is the oldest son of the Irish mob's dyspeptic matriarch (Margo Martindale). Pinched by a pair of FBI agents (Common and E.J. Bonilla) during an inept liquor store robbery, husbands Kevin, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) are sentenced to three years in prison, leaving their homemaker wives alone and effectively destitute. Kevin’s interim replacement, younger brother Little Jackie (Myk Watford), offers the women a paltry stipend for appearances’ sake, but the sum won’t even cover their rent. When the trio come crawling to Jackie and his goons to politely beseech for more, they’re furiously told to take the crumbs they’re given with a “thank you”.

Given their disdainful treatment at the hands of this boys’ club, Kathy devises a plan upon overhearing that the outfit’s protection racket is having trouble making collections. The three women resolve to pick up the sub-legal slack from their husbands’ absence, secretly wheedling a pair of foot soldiers out from under Jackie to serve as their muscle. In no time at all (i.e., over the course of a hasty musical montage), the wives manage to breathe fresh life into what was an ailing criminal enterprise, through a combination of honeyed words, entrepreneurial pluck, and survivors’ ruthlessness. Eventually, the women add exiled triggerman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) to their arsenal, and it’s roughly at this point that both the indignant Jackie and the suspicious FBI agents start to take notice of the slow-motion takeover of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld. What’s more, the women are soon summoned to Brooklyn by an Italian mafioso (Bill Camp) who is annoyed at their encroachment into the Hasidic-run diamond district. Being forward-thinkers, however, the ladies cut a deal with this rival crime boss, dividing territory in an arrangement that will definitely not come back to bite them in the third act.

The Kitchen’s most immediately obvious flaws are those of cinematic craftsmanship, or, rather, the lack thereof: This is a distressingly slipshod, lead-footed film. Berloff’s unfocused direction, Christopher Tellefsen’s belly-flop editing, and Maryse Alberti’s bland lensing (with a few vivid exceptions) combine to turn a functional-if-banal story into an astonishingly sloppy work. (Again, the comparison to Widows, which boasted razor-sharp editing and sound design, is not a flattering one.) It’s less one glaring defect than lots of little inept decisions, from the awkward, halting way that the film’s montages compress time to Berloff’s tendency to stretch out scenes until every drop of crime-thriller tension has leaked away. It’s never a good sign when the viewer, rather than white-knuckling their armrest, is just tapping their fingers for the film to dispense with the inevitable eruption of violence and move on to the next scene. Like the knockoff Gucci handbags sold on the film’s street corners, The Kitchen apes the general look, sound, and story of a Martin Scorsese crime epic, except that it's shabbily constructed from inferior materials. (Or, in some cases, the director’s worst inclinations. Is there a soundtrack full of on-the-nose period needle-drops, including tracks from Fleetwood Mac and Heart? You bet there is!)

The three leads make the best of the script that they’ve been given, with McCarthy faring the least-bad in a role that feels like a cozy fit for her baseline dramatic mode, even if the film never finds a way to plausibly resolve Kathy’s mama-bear brutality with her sheltered-housewife guilelessness. Haddish has the worst of it, though not through any fault of her own. Berloff’s screenplay plainly wants to position Ruby as the wild card, a woman of sly ambition embittered by a violent childhood and years of casual racism from her husband’s family. Yet she comes off as more of a plot-pushing Grand Theft Auto NPC than a flesh-and-blood human, her characterization consisting of little but stale disco-era sass – which sounds curiously flat coming out of Haddish’s mouth, no matter how tart her delivery. Moss, meanwhile, is left with an idiot-simple arc that takes her character from cringing victim to cold-blooded killer, and her attempts to inject some humanity into Claire end up feeling like a hollow effort. After Gabriel abruptly enters the film just in time to save her from a back-alley rape, Claire falls for his reedy Irish charms, a development that doesn’t feel any less hackneyed just because the director is a woman who knowingly lampshades this sort of retrograde, exploitation-esque plot turn.

This points to The Kitchen’s most intractable problem: It has no idea what it values are supposed to be. Marvelous things can come from female filmmakers reworking the tropes of historically male-dominated genres. Just last year, Lynne Ramsay crafted an enervating, elliptical work of cinema out of a bog-standard urban vigilante narrative in You Were Never Really Here. Unfortunately, Berloff – a screenwriter-turned-director who scored an Oscar nomination with her Straight Outta Compton (2015) script – doesn’t seem to have given much thought to how a woman-centered story might uproot crime drama conventions (if at all). Potentially fruitful thematic avenues, such as the equalizing effect of guns on the otherwise muscle-heavy world of organized crime, are often left dangling out in open, frustratingly unexplored. The film’s most hard-hitting idea concerns the vicious punishment of women who are perceived as ungrateful for what men deign to give them – not to mention women who dare to be proud of what they’ve accomplished without (or despite) men – but even this notion is undernourished in Berloff’s screenplay.

Kathy, Ruby, and Claire aren’t portrayed as good-hearted, tragic figures unwittingly drawn into the underworld like Body and Soul’s Charley Davis, but nor are they pathetic, contemptible villains in the mold of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill. At times, the film seems to regard their misdeeds – which include corruption, extortion, and murder – as inherently heroic simply because they’re women elbowing their way into an overwhelmingly male-controlled system. This is reinforced by the film’s meager allusions to the women’s liberation movement, including a flat-footed moment where an Italian mobster’s wife (Annabella Sciorra) surreptitiously name-drops Gloria Steinem and gives the protagonists a supportive fist-pump. The triumphant tone of the film’s perplexingly sudden conclusion also points to this rather cynical worldview.

Elsewhere the feature suggests it has the ambitions of an anguished, almost Shakespearean tragedy about the corrupting effects of money and power. In other instances, it seems to be striving for a lurid domestic melodrama that just happens to be set in the criminal underworld of rat-infested, garbage-choked old New York City. In this, at least, The Kitchen enjoys some success. While it never achieves the moody period verisimilitude of, say, A Most Violent Year (2014), it nails something closer to the every-so-slightly affected retro vibrancy of Summer of Sam (1999) and Wonderstruck (2017). Simply put, the costumes, hair styles, makeup, and overall production design are pretty damn delightful, walking right up to the line of – but never actually shrieking – “See? It’s the '70’s!” In a film that frequently feels like an insipid, misshapen chore, the casual glamour of, say, Haddish’s mulberry eyeshadow and snakeskin trench coat can seem like the only port in a storm.

Rating: C-