Andrea Berloff is best known for her writing credits on Straight Outta Compton, Bloodfather and Sleepless. While accomplished when it comes to gritty dramas, her directorial debut in The Kitchen seems unfortunate. The Kitchen, referring to Hell’s Kitchen, is based on a DC graphic novel series of the same name. When their husbands are incarcerated, several women decide to continue their criminal operation in New York’s district of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s. Following Ocean’s 8, Widows and the remake of the Ghostbusters, The Kitchen seems to be right on the money when it comes to the recent trend around female-led stories about teams.
Melissa McCarthy starred in Ghostbusters and brings her considerable star power to this project with up-and-coming supporting talents, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. Embracing New York’s cultural melting pot that was Hell’s Kitchen in the ’70s, sporting a killer soundtrack and brandishing wardrobe to match the flamboyance of American Hustle, The Kitchen should have been a surefire hit. While you get the impression they’re taking a run at it, this crime drama is dismally uninspired beyond the premise of women stepping up to seize power in a male-dominated underworld.
The most glaring problem with The Kitchen is that it has been miscast. There are a good number of acting talents who are able to make the transition from comedy to drama. While Elisabeth Moss is right at home in this gritty crime drama, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish seem out of place. We’re used to seeing them headlining comedy vehicles with their larger-than-life personalities turning amusing into hilarious. While you can appreciate them trying to break type and demonstrate their range, their involvement just creates false expectations around The Kitchen’s tone. There are some whimsical moments, but Berloff is not a natural comedy writer and isn’t able to get her actors into the zone.
“Work experience? We head up crime families. Our own!”
The screenplay has the kind of scope that would make you think it could be based on a true story, but the characters are thinly scripted. You can understand that a graphic novel can only go so deep, but there must have been room for embellishment in adapting the comic series to film. Struggling to win us over beyond our love for the charms of the lead cast, it’s a curious yet fairly uninvolving story that fails to leverage its star power. You’d expect The Kitchen to play up its dark comedy angle or just play to the strengths of its cast, but it doesn’t flinch… flat-lining in terms of laughs. If their dramatic performances were strong enough or their characters had been nuanced enough, it may have been easier to accept.
While going headlong into drama and almost downplaying any element of comedy, The Kitchen is tonally uneven. Tripping into similar problems to the John Travolta film, Gotti, never finding a rhythm and excusing genre cliches based on a gender shift. Veering from cleaning-the-streets gangster politicking to grisly Bonnie & Clyde serial killer vibrations, The Kitchen remains unwieldy. As if splitting into two films, a subplot involving Claire (Moss) actually becomes the most interesting aspect as a battered woman reclaims her life only to find herself shadowing an old flame. There’s a strange irony at the heart of The Kitchen as the all-female film constantly find ways to lean on men. This just skews the underlying message, trying to subvert any “girl power” labels by toning things down in a film about reappropriating “The Kitchen”.
The stakes aren’t high enough. While the wives are competing in a hostile and traditionally male-dominated racket, there’s never any real sense of danger. Beyond Claire’s volatile interactions that make it seem as though she’s actually bringing it upon herself, the women run the show by simply giving as good as they get – almost unchallenged. It just seems too easy and becomes routine as the coarse language comes to represent their street smarts. Everyone just does what they please without any sense of consequence, creating an unreal and unpoliced environment. Simply acting tough, threatening soft targets and calling the shots becomes the blueprint for success.
While a promising idea and underwritten by considerable talents, The Kitchen falls flat. It’s not exciting, funny or dramatic enough, failing to leverage its star power, entrench its characters or elevate the danger of going against the system. It’s not offensively bad, trying to honour its source material and nurture its talents, but amounts to a lot of gangster posing, muddled gender politics and hot air. The film would have worked better as a slow-burning TV series, but simply pales in comparison to Widows for drama and lacks the sparkle of fun that made Ocean’s 8.
The bottom line: Misfire