Empty calories contained by the simplest of underworld narratives, “The Kitchen” tells a story similar to last year’s female-driven underworld drama, “Widows.” But it’s told in the precise opposite fashion of that undervalued picture.
This one’s easy to follow, not a “Widows”-style labyrinth, and it’s far more shameless about stoking the audience’s bloodlust without any moral wrinkles. Set in the late 1970s, it’s a series of quick, blunt power negotiations featuring some very fine actors, and brutal tit-for-tat killings targeting every thug and weasel in sight, plus an unexpected victim or two.
The movie’s talking point will surely be its focus (blackly comic, and cleverly indirect in its staging and filming) on bathtub dismemberment. We’ve seen it before. But here the dismemberment-pertinent actors are Elisabeth Moss, bringing true emotional color to a pencil sketch of a much-abused mob wife, and Domhnall Gleeson, as the unbalanced sweetie and Vietnam veteran. In their hands "The Kitchen” periodically becomes a deadpan how-to demonstration from the world’s most grotesque cooking show. The audience responds with disgusted glee, while learning something practical.
Taken from the DC Comics Vertigo series introduced in 2014, the story was created by writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle. Screenwriter-director Andrea Berloff adapted the series (later packaged as a graphic novel) for this feature directorial debut.
To evoke the bad old affordable days of Hell’s Kitchen, now a gentrified midtown Manhattan wonder of brownstones and cortados, the film’s supervising art director, Anu Schwartz, apparently found exactly the right set dresser to supervise the correct strewing of the garbage. The sidewalks and streets look garbage-y enough to really take you back. The Farrah Fawcett hair, too, is everywhere, framing the face of every white woman in the ensemble like a small, feathered proscenium arch.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Moss headline the project, and they’re very canny about playing the material’s uncertain tonal swings for real. While their husbands are in prison for a botched robbery, Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss) take charge, without permission of the patriarchy, of collecting protection money from local business interests on behalf of the local Irish syndicate. Business booms; the good times roll. Then the Brooklyn Italian mob gets jealous. They want in; the husbands, meantime, get out of jail.
At one point the Italian capo, played with fantastically droll authority by Bill Camp, scolds Ruby: “We don’t want to traffic in stereotypes, do we?” The movie, naturally, is a traffic jam of stereotypes. McCarthy’s character is proud of the jobs she creates for her Irish tribe, and when someone exhorts her to learn to “speak Jewish,” she goes to work on persuading the Hassidic Jews behind a huge construction project to partner up or else. The “else” part comes soon enough.
Margo Martindale, as the menacing mother of the story’s Little Caesar (Myk Watford as Little Jackie), is reliably terrific in a single-note role; Common side-eyes the action as an FBI detective connecting the dots between the murders. The husbands, in varying degrees of venality, are handled by Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale and Jeremy Bobb.
“The Kitchen” isn’t trying to be “The Godfather: Part II” or anything even semi-serious in its crime yarn-spinning. But even for a revenge-driven thriller in the vigilante spirit, this one’s seriously hypocritical. The McCarthy character’s sincere belief in doing good for her community makes sense from an actor’s point of view. Actors have to believe their characters believe in their personal cause, and at this point in her career (thanks in large part to “Can You Ever Forgive Me?") McCarthy has learned to ease off the pedal when the material requires it.
This material, though, is damn thin. Like so many films derived from the pictures and words of a graphic novel, “The Kitchen” feels perfunctory and sterile and under-detailed. It’s not a matter of budget; Sam Mendes’ high-class “Road to Perdition” felt that way, too. It may well succeed; it looks pretty good on an efficient medium-sized budget, and it wants only to deliver female empowerment one bullet or dismemberment at a time, with nothing too terribly morally troubling to intrude.
Scratch that: I was morally troubled by the way "The Kitchen” squanders one of its prime opportunities. The prime opportunity’s name is Annabella Sciorra, best known for “Jungle Fever” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and, later, “The Sopranos.” Her brief screen time here as the Italian mobster’s wife makes you crazy with frustration. That’s all she gets? A few lines and a look or two? Sciorra was one of the career victims of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory, vindictive influence in the insidious prime of that mogul’s reign. For years she was blackballed and had to settle for crumbs. We do the same watching Sciorra here, however fleetingly.