It gives no pleasure to convey how middling The Kitchen is. The film just lays there limp and lifeless, trying desperately to inject some interest for the audience. Its dullness is almost impressive, as if it would be harder to make a film this meandering than to take the genre elements, throw in some action beats, and get by with something perfunctory.
The storyline, drawn from a comic by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, involves the wives of three gangsters who, after their husbands are imprisoned, take on their Hell’s Kitchen protection racket to the chagrin of the other members of the Irish Mob. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy)’s husband seems the most respectable of the trio, while the husband of Claire (Elisabeth Moss) beats the crap out of her. A formerly meek Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is wed to Kevin (James Badge Dale), whose mother (Margo Martindale) is one of the prime movers of the gang.
As the women flex their power, there are inevitable conflicts, particularly as Ruby’s machinations come into opposition with the tough yet fiercely maternal Kathy, who still holds onto a sense of a moral code. Claire’s downtrodden nature finds its own ferocity when guided by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a hit man who expresses his affection for his former employer’s spouse.
If there’s a saving grace in this mess, it’s the manic sociopathy exhibited by Claire and Gabriel. Frankly, a movie following this Bonnie and Clyde-like assassin couple as they go on a rampage would have been much more interesting. Moss looks like she’s having loads of fun chewing on the excesses of her character, believable both when succumbing to blows and delivering her own vengeance.
McCarthy feels like she’s phoning in a performance that she’s given many times before. She elevates the underwritten character slightly by bringing some of her star power to bear. There’s not much here, but at least her swings in mood feel adequate if not extraordinary.
Tiffany Haddish, sadly, is just awful. I can’t say I’ve been a fan of the actress’ shtick in other settings, but here she’s completely out of her element, shamed any time she’s on screen with performers that dwarf her talent. She lacks conviction when angry, sad, fearful, or bloodthirsty, which pretty much makes whatever she’s doing on screen achingly awkward moment by moment. It’s a shame, because Ruby is easily the most interesting character on paper given what she needs to navigate. Unfortunately, with this casting the entire structure collapses. Want a replacement? Stick in Queen Latifa and the film would gain immensely. Cast Viola Davis, like the similarly themed Widows, and you’d have the rest of the cast pale against her luminance.
Andrea Berloff’s direction is hardly showy, but her inability to draw a decent performance from even one of her three leads is the most compromising. The pace lacks intensity. A movie that should feel energetic and raw instead feels procedural and predictable. Save for one mildly telegraphed betrayal that provides a bit of shock, the other grand reveals in the plot not only come across as ridiculous, they’re rarely explored at all. The narrative simply shifts onto another chapter that results in yet another big twist.
One can hope that Berloff’s directorial debut is merely prelude for what’s to come from the screenwriter of Straight Outta Compton, as this is hardly evidence of either a strong voice or technical dexterity. The Kitchen is a forgettable studio film that will be buried during the summer blockbuster onslaught, quickly forgotten as a mere blip in the career of the primary leads. Berloff deserves another chance, perhaps, but we definitely deserved better from this one.