When you hear the line “I did what I had to do,” odds are the writer knows you were thinking “Why in the world did they do that?” Whenever someone gets shot, ripped off, roughed up, or double-crossed in The Kitchen, we understand why she did it, but it is rarely an obligation. When “I did what I had to do” is repeated after each and every plot twist, it’s like the mobster version of “The dog ate my homework.”
The Kitchen tells the story of three women in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen whose husbands are caught red-handed mid-robbery. While the men are locked away for three to five years, their mob bosses promise to take care of the families, but the money offered barely covers rent, let alone food and childcare. That leaves Kathy, Ruby, and Claire (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss) to fend for themselves. The wives resort to making money by offering competing protection rackets to local businesses, many of whom are dissatisfied with the O’Carroll family’s lackluster service. This leads to a turf war and strained loyalties as the rival operation gains momentum, and there’s no telling how their husbands might react when they’re out of the slammer.
It’s a fine enough setup, and the capable women excel after a lifetime of living in the background. The world expects them to wait for permission, but they have neither the time nor the inclination. This is all reflected in the title: They’re taking over Hell’s Kitchen, they’re withstanding the proverbial heat, and they’re defying anyone who tries to keep three women from advancing beyond where they supposedly belong.
The problems with The Kitchen start around the time the screenplay goes into Goodfellas territory. The story speeds up while the storytelling remains static, and Ruby, Haddish’s character, suffers the most from this unevenness. Not even a performer of her magnetism and commitment can make any sense of what she’s given. A twist happens, she explains away her decision with a cliché that doesn’t make sense until the end, and the final revelation clarifies the logic but neutralizes the tension—making it all pointless, not poignant. Haddish has shown how much of a movie she can carry. To reduce her to a glorified plot point is a huge disappointment.
McCarthy proves once again she’s at her best when she steps outside of the sorts of roles that made her famous, but it’s Moss that steals the show. Claire, though largely a supporting role to Kathy, has the fullest character arc of all three as her abusive husband’s incarceration opens the door to real, mutual romance with Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). Together, Claire and Gabriel develop her self-defense skills to the point that she’s more fearsome than any mob enforcer. Her violence is almost gleeful, and every kill brings them closer. This should have been a movie of its own.
Though the story is not a strong one, The Kitchen could have been redeemed through more engaged direction. Writer-director Andrea Berloff has a Scorsese-style script but the film doesn’t live up to that energy. It’s inert, always at the same level, never reacting to the material. The sets and clothes look terrific and are well-captured by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, but the whole movie feels indifferent to the audience’s enjoyment.
The Kitchen / R, 102 minutes / Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
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