The directorial debut of Andrea Berloff has all the right ingredients for success including a talented cast, fresh source material, and a stylish and timely theme of female empowerment that should really work. Except, it just doesn’t.
Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are three Irish mafia wives in 1978 Hell’s Kitchen. Each has their own crutch to bear – Kathy is a doting mom and housewife on the sidelines, Ruby faces racism along with a boorish husband and overbearing mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), and Claire is the victim of long-term physical abuse at the hands of her husband. After the FBI busts their lads, the ladies, scrambling for money and finding themselves cast out of their mob family, take matters into their own hands by collecting debts and offering security to the neighbourhood.
The Kitchen’s biggest weakness is the speed at which it tears through its story, based on Ollie Masters’ and Ming Doyle’s DC/Vertigo comic book. Reducing it to one crime family cliché after another, the story and its characters never get a chance to breathe, let alone time for the audience to invest in their respective plights. So-called “twists” come at breakneck speed before there’s even a chance to smell something fishy cooking. Certain scenes appear to be the victim of hasty editing, feeling like we’re joining in mid-sentence or after some unknown time shift that are missing the key ingredient to tie it all together.
While McCarthy and Moss are relatively fine, especially given the mediocre dialogue, Haddish is the odd one out who never seems to be able to meet the challenge of her more-seasoned co-stars. At times, McCarthy and Haddish seem like they are waiting to deliver the punchline to a joke that isn’t coming. The “Girls Trip” star (who would have been better-suited for the lighter lady-led crime caper Ocean’s 8) often sounds like she’s the one making the joke in the middle of what should be a dramatic delivery.
The men of The Kitchen don’t fare much better. Domhnall Gleeson’s dead-eyed veteran is a sociopathic love interest in a film that can’t seem to decide if he’s the brooding protector or the comic relief. Common is given little to do as a one-note FBI agent who just gets to sit in cars on stake-outs until the story decides it needs him.
The husbands of the leads are similarly given little to go on other than broad story strokes, leaving James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James and Jeremy Bobb little to do other than lean into their generic roles as “racist husband”, “mob dad” and “angry guy”. There’s certainly not enough here to ever suggest why the film’s female leads would ever be with these men in the first place, let alone worry about taking on their empire.
The gritty Hell’s Kitchen setting and costumes are a success making sequences of the women strutting the streets of their mafia empire look great, however the film’s reliance of 1970s musical montages to speed through the passage of time does little to build any suspense or impact.
In the end, the biggest obstacle The Kitchen faces is Steve McQueen’s Widows, which tackled a similar plot, female-empowerment, and crime in 2018. Criminally underseen, Widows hits all the cultural and genre touchstones The Kitchen doesn’t, making for a much more enjoyable watch that actually delivers on its concept.