Directed by Andrea Berloff. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Common, Bill Camp.
The Plot: Hell’s Kitchen, New York, 1978. The Irish mob are running the local scene. When their respective husbands are busted for a robbery, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) find themselves short of cash and facing an uncertain future. With their husbands in the slammer for three years, they have an opportunity to make gold out of hay by picking up their protection rackets, investing in new ones and forming alliances with the Italian mafia in Brooklyn. The dough comes rolling in, as the women defy the crime conventions of the era and set up their own empire. What will their husbands think when they get out though?
The Verdict: Now known as the gentrified Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen in New York was a gritty hotbed of Irish-American criminal activity in the 1970s. Screenwriter turned first-time director Andrea Berloff rewinds the clock to that time period for female-fronted story The Kitchen, long before New York itself was cleaned up by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. It bears some plot similarities to last year’s superb Widows. However, it pursues its own muddled agenda by mixing in various elements without coalescing them into a satisfying whole. Not that you would know it from looking at it, but it’s based on a DC comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. Any similarity to a comic book series is entirely co-incidental here. Berloff keeps the characters grounded in realism but the violence cartoonish and inappropriately funny. An odd mix of elements, to say the least.
It’s not the only thing that’s off and undercooked about this film. The tone varies wildly, mostly in the contrasting lives of Kathy, Ruby and Claire. They’re all so different from each other that their grand plan stretches credulity. Kathy is the most realistic and ambitious, Ruby is an opportunist who might stab the others in the back, while Claire is an abused oddball who develops an attraction to returning hoodlum Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson, very laid back and steals the film in the process). There’s a bizarre romance between the two, as they bond over how best to dismember a corpse in a bathtub. It’s typical of this film’s uneven tone to throw scenes like this at you like frisbees, hoping that you’ll catch them all. A lot of them end up missing though, flying away on their own little plot tangents that lead nowhere (corrupt cops, a threat to a Jewish businessman, a late revelation that doesn’t add up).
There is some amusement to be had here, watching these smart, ambitious and sassy women get the angle on their not-so-bright and brutish husbands. The language is fruity and tough-talking, with the cast getting into character – and the character of the time period too. Haddish, in particular, is showing signs of developing into a fine dramatic actor, which is not apparent from the usual shouty comedy roles that Hollywood feeds her. Berloff shows a good flair for period detail too. However, it’s hard to shake off the impression that The Kitchen is a middling crime film that is struggling to be a better film. It has its moments, but not enough of them to bump the film into the kind of territory that would be more associated with Martin Scorsese’s New York crime films (surely an inspiration). A bit more care and attention to the tone of the film might have turned this into something special. Instead, it’s distinctly average.