REVIEW – ‘The Kitchen’ is one of the year’s biggest disappointments

Picture this: a trio of wives find themselves in a bind after their mobster husbands leave them in the lurch, forcing them to take over the nefarious criminal activities to pay the bills. You don’t have to picture it because we already saw this narrative in 2018 with Steve McQueen’s shamefully Oscar-ignored Widows. Yet, less than a year later, here we are to do it all again with The Kitchen; a film which suffers terribly by unfortunate comparison to McQueen’s masterwork.

Lacking the deep characterisation, thrilling plot, and sharp social commentary that made Widows such an exhilarating yet confronting piece of cinema, The Kitchen simply isn’t in the same ballpark. Unfavourable parallels aside, the film criminally wastes its impeccable ensemble cast with paper-thin characters, a jumbled narrative that’s genuinely confusing, and a final product that can’t determine its tone, message, or intention. Sadly, this is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

Set in New York’s down-and-dirty Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1978, The Kitchen centres on three women whose husbands are all members of the local Irish mob. Doting mother of two Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) is married to gentle gangster Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), who longs to leave his mob days behind. Strong headed Ruby O’Carroll (a miscast Tiffany Haddish) is married to the domineering mob boss Kevin (James Badge Dale), much to the chagrin of his racist mother and mob matriarch Helen (a shamefully underused Margo Martindale). And Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) is stuck with her deadbeat husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb), who physically and emotionally abuses his wife on a daily basis, leaving her without a shred of self-respect.

After being busted by FBI Agents Silvers (Common) and Martinez (E.J. Bonilla), the three husbands are sent to prison for three years, leaving their wives cashless and desperate. While new crime boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford) promises to take care of the women, his paltry envelopes of cash are barely enough to pay their rent. After Jackie cruelly denies Kathy’s pleas for additional funds, the wives decide to take matters into their own hands and join forces to create their own little “business.”

It seems many of the local small business owners are unhappy with Jackie’s lazy protection racket and the money they’re paying his goons is ultimately providing little security in the rough neighbourhood. Seizing their moment, the wives take over the collections and instead offer protection via several of Jimmy’s faithful associates. With the help of former Irish mob assassin Gabriel O’Malley (the ever-reliable Domhnall Gleeson) and Brooklyn Mafia boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), their newfound crime empire grows rapidly. But as the money rolls in, the target on their backs grows larger and larger.

With some rather wonderful trailers and poster artwork, The Kitchen looks like a deliciously good time. And it damn well should have been. All the right ingredients are here, but the film is so haphazardly constructed, the end result is a confusing, dull, and conflated mess. Its biggest issue lies with its tone. Or, more accurately, its jarring lack of any semblance of tone. This film has no idea what it is, and therein lies the problem.

At times, The Kitchen plays like a Scorsese-esque mobster drama, full of violence and blood-soaked death at every turn. In other moments, it plays more like a breezy comedy caper, often eliciting laughs completely unintentionally. But the film constantly meanders between tones, never once nailing either even remotely effectively. And when the film decides to go truly dark and the wives begin to really go bad, it feels so painfully inauthentic and forced, as if the film is desperately trying to overcompensate for everything it lacks.

There’s a concerted effort from writer/director Andrea Berloff to elicit empathy from the audience for these three women. And, sure, you certainly feel a little sorry for the each of them, particularly domestic violence victim Claire. But the inescapable fact remains these wives married into the mob life and knew precisely the risks associated with such a lifestyle. Should we really feel bad for them, particularly when they begin to enact some very nasty behaviour themselves?

With little concern shown for character development, we’ve barely met each of our protagonists before we’re expected to cheer at each of them ordering (or carrying out themselves) the brutal murder on anyone who dares gets in their way. Their rise to success comes so bizarrely easily and with little complication from their supposedly brutish male oppressors, creating a plot that’s wildly implausible and all sorts of silly. It doesn’t help the film is constructed in utterly woeful fashion, with some of the worst editing you will see this year.

The three leads try their utmost to elevate the screenplay beyond the woeful dialogue and ridiculous narrative moments, but even they can’t save this one. After her astonishing performance in last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy offers another intriguing dramatic turn, but she can’t hide her comedic sensibilities here, creating a character that feels more akin to her fish-out-of-water work in Spy. There are moments which hint at a deeper character arc for Kathy, but the script fails to give McCarthy the opportunity to explore them properly.

In an interesting career move, Haddish bravely attempts something wildly different to anything she’s offered thus far. But she never seems quite comfortable toning down her usual brash persona, particularly with such a flat, one-note character like Ruby. In what seems like nothing more than stunt casting, there’s little for Haddish to do here but roll with the plot, as Ruby detours off into a twist you can see coming a mile away.

It’s left to Moss to offer one of the more interesting character arcs of the film, as Claire evolves from whimpering victim to powerful assassin with a taste for vengeance. We know Moss can play these downtrodden roles with her eyes closed, and, as uncomfortable as her character journey may be, it’s the only one with any authenticity and believability. Moss has great chemistry with Gleeson, crafting an unexpected romance that’s one of the film’s few highlights. Gleeson shines as a damaged war veteran whose seen so much carnage in Vietnam, he’s completely desensitised to death and dismemberment, offering Claire the companionship she’s so desperately longed for.

The one element of this film that truly sparkles is the impressive production design from Shane Valentino and the costume design of Sarah Edwards. An evocative and authentic recreation of late 1970s Manhattan in all its gritty grandeur, the visual aesthetic of The Kitchen is perhaps its crowning glory. With neon-sign dotted streets with adult movie cinemas and pimps and prostitutes on every corner, it’s a loving tribute to a New York City lost long ago. As you can imagine, the film is filled with a soundtrack of 70s tracks from Heart, Kansas, Etta James, and The Rolling Stones, but they constantly feel like heavy-handed inclusions to create a tone the narrative lacks.

On paper, The Kitchen has everything in its favour, making the end result that much more frustrating. There’s a brilliant film hiding in here somewhere, but it’s not what’s served up on the screen. Instead, we’re given a bafflingly incoherent wreck that underutilises every one of its assets, especially its wonderful cast who all deserve better than this. An undercooked and bland creation, this film clearly needed some more time in the oven.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleason, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Common, E.J. Bonilla, Jeremy Bobb, Myk Watford, Wayne Duvall, Pamela Dunlap, John Sharian, Brian Tarantina, Annabella Sciorra
Director: Andrea Berloff
Producers: Michael De Luca, Marcus Viscidi
Screenplay: Andrea Berloff
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Music: Bryce Dessner
Production Design: Shane Valentino
Editing: Christopher Tellefsen
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: 29th August 2019 (Australia)

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