On paper, The Kitchen seems like a slam dunk. Each ingredient in the metaphorical recipe is wonderful on its own — and the combined total was enough to get my hopes very high — but the resulting dish, directed by Andrea Berloff, is an incoherent mess. The flavors just don’t taste great together.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, The Kitchen centers on three mob wives who come to power after their husbands are sent to jail in 1970s New York. There’s Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), who loves the community but is shaken by the violence; Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), who’s determined to take what’s hers, no matter what it takes; and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), who, now that her abusive husband (Jeremy Bobb) is behind bars, has resolved never to let herself be beat down again.
If that last description sounds a little strange, it’s also regrettably representative of how casually the film treats violence, sexual and not, against women to try to raise the stakes and make a point about empowerment. The brand of feminism that The Kitchen is working with is unfortunately shallow, positing trauma as necessary for growth and equating strength with being able to commit murder and not shying away from blood. Need to prove a woman has her wits about her? Have her shoot a gun.
It’s disappointing to see female strength made out to be so one-dimensional, worsened by the way the script keeps emphasizing “girl power” by parroting the usual talking points about how women are always expected to stay home and take care of the kids, how men dictate what women can and can’t do, and how women can do anything if they stick together. They’re not wrong, but they’re unnecessary and heavy-handed in a film that makes those points naturally. If anything, it feels like pandering, and at worst, like condescension. Sure, you’ll get the point. But only if someone holds your hand and helps hammer it home.
To add to the film’s mounting list of problems, it’s frantically edited, reminiscent of the clips of Bohemian Rhapsody that went viral for just how clunky they were. Generously, the editing — in addition to inexplicable character turns, introductions, and motivations — feels like the casualty of a longer piece cut down to hit a more palatable runtime. So does any sensitivity as to Ruby’s place as the one lead character of color. The argument can be made that the racist jabs the other characters make at her are true to period, but there’s no explaining a truly bizarre scene between Ruby and her mother in which she’s told she was beaten as a child in order to make her stronger.
That feeling of truncation makes a little sense given The Kitchen’s origins, but doesn’t excuse (or explain, ultimately) just how poorly the film holds together. The performances are fine — Haddish proves she can carry her weight in a dramatic role (as does McCarthy, though last year’s fantastic Can You Ever Forgive Me? should have cleared up any doubts on that front) — but this isn’t a film that can coast on star power alone. Even the terrific supporting cast — Bill Camp, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Domhnall Gleeson, Margo Martindale — barely register. The needle drops, on the other hand — “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “The Chain” — stick out like a sore thumb for how gracelessly they’re used.
Though it would be a stretch to call it a saving grace, The Kitchen at least isn’t lacking for style, as the outfits the women sport are (no pun intended) killer. The retro Warner Bros. logo that opens the film is a nice touch, too. If only the rest of the movie could live up to that kind of panache.
Style aside, the most interesting thing about The Kitchen is something that was arguably done better by Kick-Ass almost a decade ago. Both adapted from graphic novels, both films take tales about non-superpowered folks and tell them with the kind of heightened tone and style more commonly associated with the pride and joy of the comic medium, the superhero story. It’s fun watching previously mundane things — though organized crime arguably doesn’t entirely fall under that umbrella — get punched up to such extremes.
But, as with all such films, it’s only fun if there’s something solid backing it all up. All The Kitchen has are cardboard cutouts. These women haven’t really built anything, despite what they continuously proclaim. Their version of a mob empire is a bunch of murders and harassment of the local Jewish population; the film’s version of female empowerment is just as shoddy.
The Kitchen opens in theaters on Aug. 9.