'The Kitchen': Film Review

Strong on flavorful atmosphere, but never really gets cooking.

Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss star as mob wives in late-'70s New York who take matters into their own hands after their husbands are jailed.

In its transfer from the comic-book page to the big screen, The Kitchen scores a casting trifecta: To play a trio of working-class wives turned protection-racket honchos, who better than Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, actors with badass bona fides and attitude to spare?

Screenwriter Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) takes the helm for the first time with this story of women taking the reins, and though she might have adapted the source material pre-#MeToo, the zeitgeist rooting factor for the femme-centric project is high. (A cameo by Annabella Sciorra, a key figure in that movement, packs a punch.) What's missing in this Kitchen is heat. A B-movie summer diversion at best, it's more a collection of genre tropes than an involving crime drama.

Like the 2018 feature Widows and the broadcast series Good Girls, the film is driven by the "wild" idea of put-upon females breaking out of ordinary lives and hitting their stride as full-fledged criminals. Tonally it falls somewhere between the former's dire seriousness and the latter's dark-tinged sitcom vibe. Berloff struggles to find the sweet spot and, crucially, to draw from her leads the compelling intensity they've delivered elsewhere.

With DP Maryse Alberti, production designer Shane Valentino and costume designer Sarah Edwards, Berloff has nonetheless conjured a vivid evocation of 1978 Manhattan in all its gritty glory. The garbage-strewn streets and graffiti-emblazoned subway cars might be nothing new to moviegoers, but specific to this saga is the way the neon squalor of Times Square punctuates the drab palette of Hell's Kitchen, the swath of midtown where the reigning Irish mob's territorial influence is fraying.

As well realized as the setting is, though, the characters within it come to full-blooded life only occasionally. Given the onscreen talent assembled, the two-dimensionality of the proceedings is especially disappointing.

At the center of the story are three sort-of friends in varying states of marital accommodation to low-rung mobsters. McCarthy's Kathy considers her bond with Jimmy (Brian d'Arcy James) a solid one and looks anguished when a judge announces the men's three-year sentence. Claire (Moss), on the other hand, responds with a Mona Lisa smile, and, having viewed a glimpse of her sadistic brute of a husband (Jeremy Bobb) in domestic action, we understand both her pleasure and her restraint. Emotions and motivations are less clear for Ruby (Haddish), who puts up with a philandering spouse (James Badge Dale) and a blatantly racist mother-in-law (Margo Martindale) who will never stop seeing her as an interloper from Harlem.

When Kathy delivers the screenplay's theme sentence — "We're all done being knocked around" — she's speaking not about her relationship with Jimmy but about the mob's dismissive attitude toward three loyal mates who now have no means of support. Berloff is attuned to the kind of everyday realities for women in the late '70s that many millennials might have trouble wrapping their minds around: Motherhood was an acceptable reason not to hire someone, and being verbally accosted on the street by men was a part of life in the big city.

In light of those socially ingrained challenges, but, more vitally, in light of the need for narrative tension, the ease with which Kathy, Ruby and Claire take over the local underground economy is absurd. There's barely a moment's hesitation among Hell's Kitchen's mom-and-popsters as they switch their protection-money allegiance to the new queens in town. Proving to be better protectors and all-around smarter cookies than the guys, the women, rocking feathered hair and disco jeans, are soon strutting down the streets as if they own them, their swagger meant to rival Tony Manero's in Saturday Night Fever (and set to a far less organic soundtrack of songs).

But it's not their dance moves that draw the attention of a pair of FBI agents (Common, E.J. Bonilla) or catch the eye of the Brooklyn Mafia boss (Bill Camp) who summons them over the bridge for a meeting. To her credit, Berloff doesn't make light of the urban warfare that ensues, but neither does she give it much weight. The shots that ring out are jarring and harsh, the dramatic impact nil. The deaths of central characters leave barely a ripple.

It's understandable that Moss' Claire, after years of abuse, sparks to her new murderous mastery. Tutored by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleason), the soulful exterminating angel of a hitman who adores her, she's a quick learner, and has a knack for the (offscreen) Grand Guignol of corpse disposal — with Berloff and cinematographer Alberti crafting a dark poetry connecting walk-up bathtubs and the Hudson River. Yet as good as these two actors usually are, the movie limits them, and Claire's awakening to the power of love and death, to a few dramatic notes.

Similarly constricted is Haddish, who has shown on The Last O.G. that she's in command of a nuanced range beyond her comic chops. The shifting light in Ruby's eyes signals a lifetime's calculation at work, but this aspect of her story becomes just another card shuffled into the narrative deck, the final reveal of her hand unconvincing. Even the formidable Martindale, as an old-school meanie who commands respect from the Irish mob but has no true power of her own, is reduced to a caricature.

And for McCarthy, on the heels of her extraordinary breakthrough dramatic performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this film serves more as a placeholder than an advance. A brief dinner scene between Kathy and her kids suggests the character-defining subtleties that might have been.

The Kitchen is smart enough not to simply equate female empowerment with crime, but whatever price the characters must pay for their newfound clout, the sacrifice is never truly felt. Berloff gets the city's tribalism, though, and understands that it was on the brink of landscape-altering economic change in 1978. No period New York movie these days can resist a reference to the 45th president of the United States, and in a sly aside about a major Manhattan development project that would become the Javitz Convention Center, a character mentions "some millionaire's kid, a little shit-for-brains."

More such wiliness might have helped to crack the flat surface of this tale of crime and punishment. The ingredients are all there, awaiting an animating fire.

Production companies: New Line Cinema in association with Bron Creative
Distributor: Warner Bros.
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
Screenwriter-director: Andrea Berloff
Producers: Michael De Luca, Marcus Viscidi
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Michael Disco, Dave Neustadter, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Elishia Holmes, Adam Schlagman
Based on the DC Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Composer: Bryce Dessner
Casting directors: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield, David Vaccari

Rated R, 103 minutes