The summer’s final comic book movie is perhaps the least expected as far as its source material and whether it’d been worth manifesting into a full-length feature. Look at The Kitchen for at least five minutes, and it wouldn’t be easy to determine exactly where its origins lie. Surprise (but not really), it’s based on a 2015 DC/Vertigo graphic novel crafted by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. Off the bat, it certainly looks nothing like a comic book movie, nor is it enough of a substantial crime drama. The sparkly wit, a cast dedicated to their roles, and the best of New York well shot on camera, it’s all there. And yet it’s an oddball mix that, as enjoyable as it was at the end, it also loses much of its mojo at that same point after rushing through much of its story.
First-time director Andrea Berloff, previously a screenwriter on Straight Outta Compton and World Trade Center, champions a sordid, somewhat bitter women’s lib fable, involving three Irish American mob wives doing their best to shoulder a heavy burden as their patriarchs are thrown in the slammer for an initial three-year sentence. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), are left to fend for themselves, and immediately go into business on behalf of their incarcerated hubbies, Jimmy (Brian D’Arcy James), Kevin (James Badge Dale), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb). Red flags are raised immediately, the higher our three leads ascend the local criminal hierarchy, working closely with neighborhood business, trading funds for specific protections.
For Jimmy’s mother, Helen (Margo Martindale), who rules over the mob scene with an iron fist and a mouth made for offensive backtalk, she’s wound up in knots over the sudden power shift. For the local FBI branch, with the hawk-eyed Agent Silvers (a subdued Common) leading the investigation, it’s an all-hands alert. And for the otherwise hidden face of ex-Vietnam vet Gabriel (a riveting Domhnall Gleason), it’s a chance to settle a lost score or two, until he builds a romantic bond with Claire, a shaken-like-a-leaf victim of deep-seated marital strife.
Those pieces, the very presence of these actors rising to the challenge of changing the script on women’s empowerment and gender’s role in a career-driven power structure, that ought to be enough to have had me enjoying The Kitchen. And most of the time, it did just that. It’s at its best moments a delightful romp that says its peace and rolls with the consequences of its own actions with a confident chip on its shoulder. However, what the trailers seem to promise, it can’t completely commit to fulfilling. At 103 minutes, that is a bit lean for a film of such heavy story, only to see it done a bit too lightly, and far too briskly. Its pacing is rather rushed, so we can only see so much in the way of character development.
McCarthy’s still on firm footing, this is the kind of lead role where she’s best suited, where she can still be funny, without trying to play for laughs, and where it can occur naturally against a tense scenario. Haddish is the cockier one, and that did play much better on-screen; easily on par with much of her recent credits (Lego Movie 2 remains her standout performance in 2019, for the record), and yet she may be the least suited for a dramatic role, at least right now. Moss perhaps carries her role the strongest, her character’s backstory established and built up without hesitation, putting actions in front of expositionary speeches. She’s easily at her best when sharing the screen with the compassionate Gleason, their on-screen chemistry impossible to deny until even that goes south.
Berloff’s directorial debut, working off her own words, is as effortless as it could be; it’s a solid work whose plot fundamentals are rather all over the place. For a film whose roots are based in a colorful piece of pulpy noir, there’s little of a translation made in Maryse Alberti’s (Creed) cinematography; flat, muted, and a bit tiring, expending its energies before the third act rolls around to sew itself up, thus not evenly landing its resolution. Its more violent moments stick out poorly, failing to weave better into the film’s loose-fitting fabric.
As amusing as it was to see Moss hacksaw a corpse with Gleason’s coaching, then dumping the body into the East River, the struggle to keep a consistent tone only proved more challenging as a result. Considering there are moments where Berloff aims to focus more on securing a wild reaction than keeping an eye on actions and motives, especially when McCarthy, Haddish, and even Martindale spin hard-biting, profanity-laden quips, that may not be a large shock to some. Anyone going in expecting to see a close variant on Steve McQueen’s Widows, last year’s female-led crime drama epic, may be disappointed, but not by much; he ran with the same idea Berloff’s trying to adapt, but with more sympathy and with easier relevancy toward the viewer.
For everything The Kitchen can get right, willing to laugh at itself before raising its gun to grab one’s attention, it still can’t fully rise to its potential away from the comic. I fear its more ardent fans won’t be satisfied, and I don’t blame them. For all the hype it’s built, it won’t justify every single ounce, but still making the best go out of a frenetic pace, overexplained story, and underdone concepts that could’ve played more efficiently as another of those hit-and-miss animated DC straight-to-video features. McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss make for a hellish, wonderfully assertive trio, and Berloff’s training ground as the captain of a cinematic ship an inviting one, regardless of its rife flaws. Filled with too much dialogue, too little real story to latch onto, but just the right amount of snark and script-flipping, there’s a deliberate burn still to be felt, dulling the taste buds, but still in need of a vibrant flavor only a more dramatic approach could’ve offered. (C+)
The Kitchen is in most area theaters now; rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content; 103 minutes.