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The Kitchen

by on August 8, 2019
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When looking into August’s release schedule, it’s always a reminder that the summer is ending and we’re heading into that rough patch of releases I’d like to call “The September Slump.” Yeah there are still films being released then but they always seem more like dumping grounds for lackluster and bad films that studios are trying to throw out before Oscar season begins in late October/early November. August, for some reason, seems to be a mixed bag of a month. We can get late but great summer films like Guardians of the Galaxy or get a flop like Mile 22. It really seems to just depend on the year which, after looking at this year’s schedule, looks like this year might be leaning more on the mediocre side. 


However, there is one August release that I was genuinely curious about: Andrea Berloff’s The Kitchen. About a month or two ago, I started to see marketing for this female-led gangster film from one of the writers of the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. That alone wasn’t enough to grab me though; it was the fact that, for a gangster film, two of the film’s leading ladies were comedy stars Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish seeming to be playing it as straight as possible. Add Elizabeth Moss (and the fact that the film is a DC Vertigo comic book film) and it piqued my interest. With my curiosity driving me, I walked into the theater hoping to see if The Kitchen was one of the good ones that come out this time of year. 


It’s January 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen. The film blows through the introductions of our female protagonists though it’s easy to see why. We see a worried Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) kissing her husband goodbye, Claire (Elizabeth Moss) being threatened by her husband as she tries to nurse a head wound he gave her, and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) sadly drinking out of view from her husband and mobster mother-in-law. All three women know where their husbands are heading: a job for the Irish mob. However, there is one aspect they never anticipated: the police were waiting for their husbands, arresting them on the spot. With a three-year sentence put upon their husbands, the women are forced to work with the petty cash that the Irish mob gives them. That is until they decide to take over their husbands’ duties, building their own power and recognition to a point where new allies and enemies begin to surface. 


While the film speeds through its introductions, it’s very obvious that the driving force for said decision is the trio of talented women leading the charge. As soon as normal is disrupted for all three women, their characters become much more interesting, letting the actresses flex their talent as the wives learn more about themselves with each passing day. McCarthy’s Kathy uses their reach to provide for the community, Haddish’s Ruby uses their growth to loosen the grip of her husband’s family on Hell’s Kitchen, and Moss’ Claire uses their power to embrace the dark yet liberating side she’s never been able to embrace in her entire life. All three actresses breathe life into their characters, resulting in strong performances that march through even the shortcomings of the film itself. Even if you ignore the solid ensemble cast, there’s enough enjoyment to be had with just the three leads having a blast with their roles and chemistry. 


In addition to the enjoyable leading ladies, the film has its darkly comical moments, genuinely surprising twists, and a dedication to the era that feels authentic. The film is constantly moving, leaving very little room for a breath yet keeping me engaged throughout its entire runtime. The film goes from being pretty easy to predict to surprising in the best way possible. There are obvious influences sprinkled throughout the film from past gangster films (especially Scorsese’s work) but there’s enough of a shift to make it feel different enough rather than excessively average. While the script is flawed, I’d argue that more of the storytelling problems come from behind the camera than anything else. 


The film’s biggest issues, unfortunately, stem from odd choices in the cinematography and editing departments. The camerawork is shockingly mediocre, bringing very little uniqueness to a female-led mobster film that takes place in late 70’s New York. The film rarely attempts to doing anything cool with the camera, resulting in most shots feeling standard or too zoomed in for the amount of characters  that are on-screen. Sure the film does look like the era but there’s very little fun to be had, capturing how grungy and nasty New York was then but doing it in the flattest way possible. Instead of taking more pages out of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (or even seeing how shows like HBO’s The Deuce capture the same exact era of New York), The Kitchen seems to have attempted little to no visual flair, resulting in a very boring film to the eye. That doesn’t even cover the editing which seems to, at a breakneck pace, get through each scene as quickly as possible, leaving very little room to breathe and speculate where the film is going until it’s already revealed everything to you.


That doesn’t even cover, in my opinion, the most glaring issue of the film: tonal imbalance. While the film’s cinematography and editing are problematic throughout, the first true sign that something isn’t right is when the film can’t tell you what it wants to be. The film has good comedic and dramatic moments but they’re mixed into an overall product that doesn’t know how to balance them well. You’ll have moments that feel like full-blown comedy bits feed right into dark and depressing moments, almost giving you whiplash in the process. When a disgusting moment immediately feeds into a darkly comedic one, it’s not necessarily always bad but it most certainly reminds you of other films that handle that balance far better. 


Overall though, I don’t hate The Kitchen. In all honesty, it’s more frustrating than anything because the film is brimming with potential and talent. I’d even recommend giving the film a watch at some point because Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss all have moments that I genuinely enjoyed throughout the film. Unfortunately, they’re just small moments lost in a big picture that does very little with the potential given, leading to a directorial debut that shows Andrea Berloff is a better writer than a director. In the end, The Kitchen is an enjoyable enough film that takes the talents of its three lead actresses and makes a film only worth watching on the weekend when there’s nothing else to watch on TV.



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