A couple times during The Kitchen, people tell housewife-turned-mobster Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) that she has become a bad person. But no, she’s sure she’s right, and even towards the end of the film gives a little speech about how she’s helping the neighborhood. And murdering a bunch of innocent or merely misguided souls along the way? Fuhgeddaboudit.
The Kitchen has a tonal problem. Whatever you think of Kathy, Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) — a fictional trio who take over an extortion/protection racket from the Irish Westies gang in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in the late 1970s — whether they’re cool criminals or nasty evildoers, what they do should at least have some zing to it, whether with the energy of awesome carnage, a la Scarface, or the satisfying sense of payback, a la Kill Bill. But The Kitchen serves up neither.
The movie, directed by first-timer Andrea Berloff, seems to think it’s a dark comedy that gets increasingly serious — a kind of GoodFellas with women leads — but it doesn’t commit to either the comedy or the morality tale and just comes across as confused and inconsistent. It’s got some gruesome laughs, as when Claire learns to dismember a corpse, but the character interactions never gel, whether between the women and their husbands (whose incarceration leads the wives to form their own racket) or among the three women.
The main problem is that the movie doesn’t want to deal with the enormity of the violence and fear necessary for these faux-jolly mob bosses to rake in all the dough they make jokes out of trying to count. People die; small businesses are squeezed for cash; neighbors are pressured into silence; the streets are peppered with hookers and hitmen. The horror is implied and occasionally depicted, but The Kitchen consistently returns to the idea that the women are on some kind of clever lark, and we should admire them. Sort of.
Maybe this works better in the graphic novel source material (Berloff adapted the screenplay from a comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doylein), in which no actual humans are involved, but onscreen it’s just increasingly disturbing.
McCarthy suffers the most, since she’s trying to maintain the feisty mom persona she uses in her comic roles, rather than going for something darker (which she did so well in Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Haddish is more willfully nasty, and Moss goes for blossoming psychopath — approaches that don’t build much audience sympathy but at least don’t seem false to the material.
The performer who comes out the best is Domhnall Gleeson, playing Gabriel, a young hood who’s crushed out on Claire. The usually chummy and clever Gleeson here plays a guy with no sense of right or wrong, except as actions serve his rather blinkered ends. He’s like a puppy dog who can rip your leg off and still beg for scratching, and he’s well-matched with Moss’s domestic violence victim turned avenger.
But The Kitchen isn’t a revenge fantasy. It’s supposed to be a power rush, yet the women wield their new strength so carelessly and inconsistently that they’re neither admirable nor interesting. A couple big plot twists late in the film barely make an impact, and the ending seems tentative rather than conclusive. A lot goes on in The Kitchen, but nearly all of it is half-baked.
Grade: D. Rated R. Now playing at the AMC River Hills, Caroiina Cinemark, and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Warner Bros.)