THE KITCHEN. Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d'Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, Bill Camp. Directed by Andrea Berloff. 103 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
‘The Kitchen’ is one of those movies that leaves you asking: why? As in, why did anyone want to make this movie? Until a couple of spirited but too-little-too-late twists in the final half hour, there’s nothing to explain what merit anyone saw in adapting its source material, the Vertigo comic book miniseries of the same name by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. ‘The Kitchen’ is derivative of any number of mobster movies, several of which have already tackled its “wives taking over their incarcerated husbands’ criminal operations” plot and done it far better. What’s more, despite clearly believing that it’s an entertaining crime romp, it is – for the most part – strangely boring. Despite being the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, one of the Oscar-nominated writers of NWA biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’ who I’ve read being described as “edgy and subversive”, there is little that’s edgy or subversive about ‘The Kitchen’, a real shame given the dramatic talent in front of the camera.
It’s 1978 in New York City; as an on-the-nose musical cue reinforces, “this is a man’s world” (the movie is full of these tired needle drops). After the FBI busts their husbands and sends them down for three years, the Irish mob promises Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) that their families will be taken care of. When the first meagre envelopes of cash are slipped under their doors, the trio realise that they will need to fend for themselves to thrive, and quickly establish their own cash-for-protection racket in their local neighbourhood, Hell’s Kitchen. The period setting allows the filmmakers to dive into some very funky 70’s costumes and set dressing, and they do a terrific job maintaining fidelity to that time while still embracing a slightly heightened, exaggerated tone befitting a comic book adaptation.
Of course, it isn’t easy establishing your own mob; the wives must deal with the incumbent head of the Irish mob, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), resistance from neighbouring Jewish businessmen led by jeweller Herb (Stephen Singer), and the Italian mafia run by Alfonso Coretti (the great Bill Camp) out of Brooklyn. None of these existing players are especially happy to have a new crime operation muscling in on their city, so the wives are pleased when Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a pitiless Vietnam veteran-turned-mob enforcer returns from a self-imposed exile to serve their new regime.
Their rapid rise to power is snappily cut together and presented in an entertaining montage, replete with the women enjoying a slow-motion boogie in a night club. However, the journey that they take from housewives to crime bosses committing atrocities for both their operation and their own personal gain is equally fast and jarringly so, draining their “successes” of any enjoyment. The hits that they’re soon ordering and carrying out rarely feel justified, and yet they’re presented as fist-pumping victories for these would-be feminist icons. Their womanhood has no bearing on this critique whatsoever; the transformation of our lead characters into ruthless killers would feel extreme irrespective of their genders.
Though ostensibly about the women’s rise to power and struggle to maintain their grip on their business, the narrative often returns to their unanimously terrible husbands. Elisabeth Moss lends Claire’s abuse at the hands of her husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb) a raw emotional weight, though it’s not a stretch for the star of hit show ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Despite her experience of domestic violence, even Claire pushes the limits of sympathy and likability when she becomes the only member of the lead trio that takes a liking to getting her own hands dirty. Kathy’s distinctiveness comes from being the only mother in the group, and the only one who loves their husband (Brian d'Arcy James). These aspects give Melissa McCarthy some interesting shades to play. Last year’s excellent crime-drama ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ was evidence of McCarthy’s mighty dramatic talents, and there are echoes of that character here, particularly as cracks begin to show in the group’s operations. McCarthy threads the needle convincingly between tough mobster and loving mother, a performance that ultimately feels underserved by the movie around it. Tiffany Haddish, who was cast after breaking out in the raucous comedy ‘Girls Trip’, is miscast as Ruby, unable to convincingly portray the very real prejudices facing black woman married to a white man when there were still strong taboos attached to such a union. Her chemistry with hubby Kevin (James Badge Dale) is spotty, and her line readings regularly feels like she’s attempting to land punchlines, even in the most dramatic moments.
Having not read the source material, I really can’t be sure whether fans of the comic miniseries will enjoy this more than the standard moviegoer, for whom this lacklustre drama will barely register. One would think that the comic was popular enough to warrant being licensed for this adaptation, yet there’s nothing in the story that has ended up on screen that would explain any level of popularity. Perhaps it’s just a bad adaptation of a good comic, but that leaves one to wonder how Berloff got it so wrong, given her solid track record. Just about everything about ‘The Kitchen’, then, is a real head-scratcher, the most pressing question being why would anyone want to watch this?
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 29.