What the hell happened with The Kitchen?

This promising all-star gangster movie fell so flat.

I’ve said it before, but I suppose it bears repeating: just because something that isn’t a film has cinematic qualities does not necessarily mean it’s tailor-made to be a movie. As video games grew in popularity and complexity, they began to integrate more film-like storytelling devices, which then led to a bunch of extremely shitty and boring movies that are more or less just like watching someone play a video game.

In the same sense, comic books do not necessarily make ideal movies directly off the page, even if many of them already skew so close to being storyboards. For the longest time, comics existed as a separate entity from film and were therefore free to pilfer from tropes found there. What might come across on the printed page as a canny repurposing of popular cinematic language may come across as stilted and lame in an adaptation. 

That’s certainly one of the major problems that plagues The Kitchen, a cheesy and restless mob drama that was adapted from a graphic novel which, by all accounts, does not have these problems. The Kitchen feels a bit like putting an English paragraph into Google Translate, translating it into French, translating the French into Spanish and finally translating that back into English. The gist of it is there, but it’s stilted, awkward and borderline nonsensical.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) is the wife of Jimmy Brennan (Brian D’Arcy James), a low-level Irish hoodlum who gets sent to jail for three years when a liquor store robbery goes awry. With her husband in jail, Kathy and the other two guys’ wives Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) find themselves struggling to survive, depending on meagre stipends from their husbands’ sketch boss (Myk Watford). Seeing many holes in the existing protection racket, the women decide to squeeze the boss out themselves and take over Hell’s Kitchen, with opposition coming from all sides in the form of the feds (played by E.J. Bonilla and a completely checked-out Common), Ruby’s husband’s terrifying mob-controlling mother (Margo Martindale going absolutely buttfuck ham — so much so that the only thing I can compare it to is a drag performance of Margo Martindale on a late-night sketch show, were such a thing to exist) and an unctuous Brooklyn crime lord (Bill Camp).

There’s nothing really wrong with the premise; in fact, you’d assume there’s a lot that you can do with this kind of reversal on the typical mob movie. The problem is that The Kitchen proceeds to do absolutely none of those things and instead trudge in overly-familiar B-grade mob muck, much less interested in the appeal of its ostensibly feminist premise (which is not something that has necessarily been done on-screen very often) and into the backstabbing dealings of various leather-sportcoating-wearing supporting actors (which has). In truth, The Kitchen doesn’t seem to have time for much. Most of its scenes are less than 30 seconds long, and each of them crashes and careens into one another with the intentionality of a montage but the rhythm of, I dunno, a series of TikTok videos. Abundant obvious  needledrops (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” shows up twice) are placed in an attempt to simulate verve and drive, but all it does is truly drive home the point that the majority of the film is just an endless series of bite-size exposition.

Any movie as hurried as The Kitchen is going to leave some things behind, and in this case it’s mainly the characters that suffer. They’re almost immediately thrust into the heat of the action before we’re given any sense of who they are, so their crazy rollercoaster of a life barely registers at all. Characters are introduced and almost immediately bloodily dispatched before we get a real sense of how relevant they really are; in one particularly egregious mishandled moment, a major character is introduced as a kind of deus ex machina in Moss’ character’s transformation moment, and it takes at least six scenes (in which that character, played by Domnhall Gleeson, is present) before we’re given any insight on who he is. Of course, these examples are not necessarily sure-fire signs of a bungled film. But these are merely a drop in the bucket of this exhausting yet interminable hodgepodge, full of empty posturing and familiar scenes.

Despite the inherent promise of juicy roles for its three lead actresses (who have definitely not done anything like this before, though Moss comes closest), The Kitchen is too truncated and condensed to give them much to do. (How you can be in nearly every scene of a movie and somehow have nothing to do is one of the many questions the film raises.) There’s an arc, sure, but in certain cases (Haddish, for one), it’s nearly invisible, hidden in the film’s bewildering structure and cluttered screenplay. Frankly, none of them even get one of those affected badass moments that seem tailored for the trailer more than the film — they just try to keep things moving along while characters chew the scenery around them. (Major demerit points for Common’s performance, which has all of the power and emotion of someone standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change.)

When I reviewed Live By Night a few years ago, I said that gangster movies were like pizza to me – even the worst ones were pretty okay. As good as that statement sounds, it also requires a certain base level of competence. A pizza that’s burnt to a crisp or chopped up in so many pieces that it becomes a slurry is not “pretty okay.” In that same sense, I found very few of the inherent pleasures of the gangster movie in The Kitchen. Only minimally stylish and all-too staccato to even bother with the idea of setpieces, The Kitchen is a true bust — an uninvolving (though likely compromised at some point in production — parts of it feel damage-controlled, as if production went off the rails at least once) and mildly embarrassing waste of talent. ■

The Kitchen opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 10. Watch the trailer here: