EXPECTATIONS: A stellar crime drama enlivened by its female leads and a refreshing viewpoint through the eyes of women.
REVIEW: Cinematic crime dramas are a dime-a-dozen these days. Whenever the subgenre term gets mentioned, filmgoers would usually think of stalwarts like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino; predominantly male talent. In the case of female talent, we have underseen films from underappreciated directors like Ida Lupino, Kathryn Bigelow, Mary Harron, Jane Campion and others.
Now we have screenwriter turned director Andrea Berloff, who is making her feature-length debut with 2019’s The Kitchen; based off the DC comic of the same name by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. Berloff has contributed great work to acclaimed films like 2006’s World Trade Center, 2016’s Blood Father and won an Academy Award for Best Screenwriting for 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. With her talented pedigree and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Melissa McCarthy (fresh off her Oscar nomination for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, will The Kitchen be as good as it looks on paper?
Set in 1978’s Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, New York City; the Irish mafia runs the territory, which spans between 8th Ave. and the Hudson River. The story centres around mob wives Kathy, Ruby and Claire; played by McCarthy, Haddish and Moss respectively. The three are expected to play their parts of servitude for their husbands, who are either abusive, narcissistic or worse.
But their lives take a dramatic turn when their husbands get arrested by the FBI (headed by Common) during a robbery gone wrong. With very little financial support and terrible living situations, the three wives take over their husbands’ dealings, which creates a major disruption with the workings of the Mafia, getting their attention and resulting with potentially disastrous results.
A film with all this talent and a refreshing viewpoint on a crime drama is bound to be a great one, right? Unfortunately, the final result is a case of having fantastic ingredients and a terrible recipe. Let’s start off with the positives first. The lensing/framing by acclaimed cinematographer Maryse Alberti and the costume design by Sarah Edwards do a great job of capturing the late 70’s vibe, resulting in very striking compositions and appealingly stylish flourishes.
The three leads do a decent job with their characters, provided by the script written by Berloff herself. McCarthy brings the same understated dramatic approach as she did in her Oscar-nominated turn with the character of Kathy, but not to the same effect; Haddish manages to tap into some of her dramatic potential as she slightly showed in 2018’s Night School as the impulsive Ruby; while Moss treats her role like a walk in the park with the vulnerable and eventually liberated Claire. Ditto for the supporting cast — consisting of Bill Camp, Margo Martindale, Common, Annabella Sciorra and others — who do what they can with their one-dimensional roles; although Domnhall Gleeson is laughably unconvincing as a Vietnam veteran/hitman.
As much as the production values and the actors’ efforts can provide, the biggest downfall of The Kitchen is the direction, the script and the editing. The subtext of the film aims for female empowerment and while the idea of is perfect for a story such as this, the execution however leaves much to be desired.
The opening scene with Etta James‘ cover of It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World signals the desperation and the lack of subtlety that is to come. Every soundtrack choice (like Paint It, Black by The Rolling Stones) is either on-the-nose or unintentionally funny, which kills the seriousness of the film.
Speaking of unintentionally funny, when the film ventures into the third act, Berloff ups the dramatic ante to a farcical fashion. The dramatic stakes and motivations become so jumbled up, that it becomes funny. The women want to improve the neighbourhood…by dismembering people in Hell’s Kitchen? What?
Apart from the overstated violence (a scene involving Ruby’s character was laugh-out-loud funny) and the ineffective twists, the worst moment involves Sciorra (who is utterly wasted here), meeting up with the three leads, in awe of the moves these women are making by saying that they are “all Gloria Steinem and shit. You give those guys hell.” The whole film is like that; packed with off-putting moments that are meant to be inspiring and meaningful about the female condition, but it just comes across as pandering and self-indulgent.
Even the haphazard storytelling gets in on the joke, as the three leads become news-worthy…just by asking an old man for money; which leads to the montage of success. They perform a debt collection service one time and a montage ensues in an unsatisfying fashion. The lack of escalation, thrills and immersion kills the momentum of the story, making it all underwhelming and dull.
The descriptors, underwhelming and dull, can also apply to the characters. They have no depth, nuance or distinctive traits that make them interesting; and the actors suffer for it. For example, the character arc(?) of Claire becomes problematic as it is shown as an empowering moment and yet it feels disingenuous as it involves psychotic behaviour alongside grisly violence; although Moss and Gleeson do their best to make the arc watchable.
Another example is the background of Ruby and how the film fails to address her identity in correlation of the time period the story is set. The racism is only surface-level and the motivations of Ruby are so murky that it not only gives Haddish little to do, but a late third-act twist is rendered pointless and only complicates the story and her character more.
But the blame does not go to the actors, but Berloff herself. Her direction is so lifeless and stilted, that it makes the actors look like cardboard cutouts, despite the many montages. The lack of energy in the film seeps into the staging, which contains lots of scenes with characters walking and talking on sidewalks; without much of the characters actually doing anything. Even the supposedly climactic ending is made in such a way that it feels like a balloon deflating. One character, who is apparently filled with rage and sorrow, just walks away with relief in seconds after he (or she) discovers a revelation that everybody knew in the first place.
Last but not least, the sloppy editing ruins any sense of momentum in terms of storytelling, character development and thrills. The passage of time is almost unnoticeable until a character spouts it out. The lack of transitions make the film feel like an assemblage of scenes, rather than a followthrough of storytelling. What is surprising is that editor Christopher Tellefsen is the same editor that worked on stellar films like 2018’s A Quiet Place, 2014’s The Drop, 2011’s Moneyball and even 2018’s Widows; so the sloppy editing could hint possible signs of studio tampering.
But audiences won’t care much about behind-the-scenes rumours when all they will care about is what’s on the screen. And what’s on the screen for The Kitchen is a project with thin characters, sloppy direction, jumbled storytelling, pandering and mixed messages and horrific editing. A major disappointment.
This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Myk Watford, Common, Bill Camp, Annabella Sciorra
Director: Andrea Berloff
Screenwriters: Andrea Berloff