The Kitchen feels like it should be a slam dunk premise, slipping a trio ensemble of talented actresses into the mold of a late ‘70s New York mob thriller and playing with the feminist subversion of women’s expected role in that time and setting. One might also think that this would be good fodder for Andrea Berloff (best known for co-writing Straight Outta Compton) to cut her teeth as a feature director on a screenplay she also wrote. You can see how these elements should play well together on paper, and while watching The Kitchen you get glimpses of a better film, a film that doesn’t feel weighed down by its intricacies and is given sufficient runtime to breathe and do these characters justice. Unfortunately, either because of issues with the screenplay or at the editing stage, The Kitchen cooks up an inferior dish.
Based on a comic of the same name published by the now-defunct DC Vertigo imprint, The Kitchen follows the wives of three Hell’s Kitchen Irish crime family members. When their husbands are sent to prison by the FBI, three women are told they’re going to be taken care of by the family, only to receive minimal funds that are insufficient to even pay the rent. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) laments her inability to provide for her children without her husband’s income; Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is the disgruntled daughter-in-law to the matriarchal figurehead of the crime family (Margo Martindale), derided as an outsider for the color of her skin; and Claire (Elizabeth Moss) is relieved that her physically abusive husband is behind bars but finds herself adrift and afraid even without him. So they go into business for themselves, collecting protection money and offering community services that the male members of the crime family have let lapse. But of course, with the establishment of a new empire comes the deadly threat of competition, both from within the family and without.
The casting of these three women is particularly brilliant for the roles they are given, playing off the strengths of their acting personas while offering them meaty pulp dialogue to chew on. McCarthy’s take on Kathy is as a put-upon mother whose choice to marry into the mob was derided by her father just as much as her choice to go into business, and the dramatic nuance of her gradually-discovered self-empowerment showcases McCarthy at her dramatic best. Ruby at first seems like an underwritten role for Haddish’s largely untested dramatic skills, but the more we grow to understand what makes Ruby tick, the more Haddish stands out as the cast’s stealth MVP. However, it’s Moss who steals the show, demonstrating Claire’s radical transformation from victim to the new crime empire's lead enforcer, embracing violence as an antidote to her own trauma like a fish to water. A lesser performance would make the shift seem jarring, but Moss' Claire is painfully human even as she learns to embrace sociopathic inhumanity.
It is truly disappointing, then, that these performances are constrained by the structure of a screenplay that doesn’t fully utilize them to the best dramatic effect. I have not read the comic upon which The Kitchen is based, but it would not surprise me if the film were an extremely faithful adaption, as the film feels segmented into a series of climaxes that mirror the cliffhanger conclusions of a serialized series. This creates a number of problems, including the sudden introduction of an important secondary character (Domnhall Gleeson) with a complete lack of establishment, a subplot involving an FBI agent (Common) that is necessary to the story but barely present, and a wavering escalation and de-escalation of tension that could have been fixed by restructuring events to fit better into a three-act structure. It also feels as though the film has been substantially edited for length, even at 102 minutes, with establishing scenes that appear and disappear as quickly as a couple of wordless comic panels and an overreliance on montage to communicate the passage of time with the most basic and predictable era-appropriate musical choices. The Kitchen will occasionally slow down to exhibit some great dialogue to complement the performances, but those performances are in service to a story that is perpetually in a rush to get to an ending that is always a few necessary plot points away from resolution.
A subplot-heavy, multi-protagonist crime epic is hard to make work as a film even with sufficient runtime and directorial experience, but unfortunately The Kitchen feels like it might have had too many cooks, whether it was studio pressures to cut down the length, a screenplay that was too loyal to its inspiration to work in a new medium, or even just the growing pains of a director’s first time behind the camera. Andrea Berloff has a lot of potential as a director, especially if she can continue to coax the sorts of performances that McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss deliver here. But The Kitchen isn’t the film that’s going to put her on the map as an auteur.