“The Kitchen” is messy.
Its all-over-the-place tone suggests creative disagreement about what sort of movie it wants to be. It was marketed as a crime comedy, consistent with the fact that it stars expert funnywomen Melissa McCarthy, who made “Spy” and “The Heat” in that vein, and Tiffany Haddish.
But that’s not what “Kitchen” is. Neither is it a macabre farce about innocents who discover a flair for dismembering bodies, although that does happen in a couple scenes. Most of the time, “The Kitchen” is a violent mob drama devoted to the notion that anything Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta can do, these women can do better.
We’re in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the late 1970s and early ’80s. McCarthy, Haddish and Elisabeth Moss play the wives of Irish goons who get thrown in the slammer. Needing to support their families, they teach themselves the protection racket, which quickly escalates to include extortion, assault, murder and the aforementioned freelance autopsying.
It’s an empowerment film, I guess, that says women can make choices as dangerous and foolhardy as men.
Fair enough. We’ve seen more than enough stories about men walking slippery moral slopes but one oddity of “The Kitchen,” which was written and directed by Andrea Berloff, an Oscar nominee for co-writing “Straight Outta Compton,” is that it’s uninterested in that moral slope.
McCarthy’s character, for instance, negotiates with the Mafia while her kids are at middle school and her husband is in jail, but the movie barely notes minor complications like who’s going to parent-teacher conferences or major ones like how a parent can sleep, knowing their career choices put their kids in constant danger? (To be fair, she eventually addresses the latter in what turns out to be the best scene.)
It’s easy to imagine how the comic books on which “The Kitchen” is based could have finessed those issues by exaggerating the real world but “The Kitchen” is clearly set in the actual past, with the World Trade Center looming over New York City, so it’s a big logic leap to accept that three neophytes could suddenly swipe a big chunk of the organized crime biz away from established crooks. Or that, somehow, tons of people would get shot in the face, in broad daylight, and no one would even bother to investigate the growing pile of corpses.
“The Kitchen” probably needed to be bolder — maybe not as stylized a world as “Sin City,” which also imagines a parallel universe of noirish crime, but at least one more willing to push the movie’s DIY-crime-lord situation to the max. One in which McCarthy’s dad’s admonishment, “You’re a criminal, Kathy. We didn’t raise you like that,” is played for laughs, instead of heavy-handed earnestness. Or where the in-joke cameo by Annabella Sciorra, whose disappearance from Hollywood became a key narrative of the #MeToo movement, doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
“The Kitchen” was a really tricky project for Berloff to take on as her first directing gig. There are good elements here: McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are excellent, playing significantly different roles from what we’ve seen them in, and journeyman character actor Bill Camp is aces as an elegant Mafioso. The harvest gold/poppy red color scheme is appropriately heinous. And the period music, while overused, is smartly curated (“Cissy Strut,” “The Chain,” “Barracuda”). If only those elements felt like they were in the same movie.
The Kitchen ★★ out of 4 stars Rating R for graphic violence, strong language and drugs.