Sometimes you can have all the ingredients but too many cooks in the kitchen.
That’s the case in the new crime drama “The Kitchen,” which features a killer cast and stylish period details, but suffers from an uneven plot that feels slapped together by studio execs offering ideas for their own gangster wish fulfillment.
It doesn’t help that your mind will instantly draw comparisons to last year’s superior “Widows” (2018), starring Viola Davis and directed by Steve McQueen, which had far more narrative cohesion, tonal consistency and thematic purpose.
Based on the Vertigo DC comic book by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, the story is set in New York’s rough-and-tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of the 1970s. Here we meet three wives, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), who take over the local gangster racket when their husbands are arrested for robbing a liquor store.
The trio of lead actresses is undoubtedly talented. It’s refreshing to see a serious side from the often hilarious McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), who plays a mother of two and sturdy wife of an Irish-American mobster (Brian d’Arcy James). The same goes for Haddish (“Girls Trip”), who spits fire against her philandering husband (James Badge Dale) and racist mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), who never got over the fact that her son married a strong African-American woman.
Stealing the show is Moss (“Us”), who learns to stand up to her abusive husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb). We’ve seen her survive abuse before, verbally in “Mad Men” and sexually in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” finding a way to be physically unassuming but with emotive eyes that can burn a hole in your soul. While the other women cringe at dismembered bodies, Moss displays nerves of steel much like Michael Corleone, whose hands don’t shake like Enzo the Baker upon lighting a cigarette.
Her character growth is sparked by boyfriend Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), aptly named as her guardian angel, who knows the best way to dispose of bodies in the Hudson River. We also get welcome support from Bill Camp (“The Night Of”) — my favorite character actor today — and rapper-actor Common (“Selma”) as a cop who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time other than drive-by cameos. It would have been better for him to track the case in parallel action like Russell Crowe dogging Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” (2007).
It’s one of the many missed opportunities by debut writer/director Andrea Berloff, who previously co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script for “Straight Outta Compton” (2016). While that film successfully juggled multiple characters with a compelling flow, “The Kitchen” appears jumbled, as plot points feel forced (the final twist), characters randomly appear (Gabriel comes out of nowhere) and simple scenes become confusing (you’ll wonder whether you saw an unintended threesome).
To her credit, Berloff demonstrates an impressive eye for 1970s period visuals, capturing the seedy porn-theater culture of Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction book “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” and shown in gritty movie masterpieces like “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Shaft” (1971) and “Taxi Driver” (1976).
In “The Kitchen,” Berloff delivers spot-on ‘70s wardrobe for a similar vibe to David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (2013), but with more blue-collar outfits than white-collar dresses. We also get another classic-rock soundtrack, but this time the song choices are more distracting than hypnotic. As much as we all love Fleetwood Mac, it’s hard to hear “The Chain” without thinking of the million other times it was played on awesome mixtapes like “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).
In the end, “The Kitchen” strives to match the volume of Martin Scorsese’s iconic “Goodfellas” (1990), but the violence is so relentless that it eventually becomes off-putting. Without a first-person narrator like Henry Hill, it’s hard to find much sympathy for the characters, despite the film’s good intentions. After all, the title not only refers to Hell’s Kitchen but shatters the outdated notion that women belong in the kitchen, disproving that diseased mindset with feminist gusto.
And yet, if you take a snapshot of the past few months of filmmaking, there are far better takes on this same exact theme. Save your money and watch “Widows” first. Then binge TV’s “Good Girls.” Then, and only then, should you catch “The Kitchen” when it finally arrives on streaming, for the cast and setting alone.
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