Before The Kitchen even begins in earnest, a glaring disconnect becomes apparent. Befitting the film’s ‘70s-era setting and indie comic inspiration, the production company logos display as retro-funkified preambles to what we presume will be a film of similar attitude and flair. No such luck as the film fades in on a clean and crisp exterior of would-be mid-‘70s Hell’s Kitchen, filmed in too-pristine digital cinematography that in general terms looks fine – save the flagrantly inserted CG scenery – but lacks any sort of organic stylistic palette. As the film carries on, it becomes clear those opening logos were casual nods to a sort of verve the film itself has no intent on actualizing.
Instead, the film is a bland and mechanical realization of what should be an exciting premise: three mob wives take over the family business when their husbands are hauled off to prison. Better still, the three mob wives are played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss. In most cases, a film could simply coast on the talents of these three actresses and survive. Oddly enough, though, The Kitchen seems to be trying to coast – using the template of a screenplay that’s only interested in connecting narrative dots – but doesn’t even have the patience to let its headlining stars thrive within its contrived environment.
There’s a listlessness to the film’s pacing from literally the very beginning, as if writer-director Andrea Berloff lacks either the inherent interest or requisite footage to adequately set up her story and characters. Consider the film’s opening sequence, a ticking of conventional framework boxes that essentially operates in three swift acts: 1) introduce our leads, each put-upon wives of dismissive gangster husbands, 2) a hasty barroom discussion of the Irish mob racket in Hell’s Kitchen, intended for no other purpose than to bring the audience up to speed, and 3) an FBI bust in which the husbands get arrested in a heist gone wrong, leaving our heroines with no resources to continue their lives. Commence the mob takeover by these bad-ass women, right? Eh, not quite. I’d suggest that Berloff is antsy to dive into the heart of this premise, but the meat of the film carries on in much the same way, with scenes that exist only to carry out a basic narrative function in the most workmanlike manner but are not remotely compelling in their own right. As a result, the film simultaneously hurdles forward and feels interminable.
Scenes just sit there lifeless, as one stilted frame is indiscriminately edited with another, back and forth, until we move on to the next similarly choreographed sequence. This clunky layering of images becomes such a trend in the film that one wonders if the poor editor, former Oscar nominee Christopher Tellefsen, had such little usable material to work with that it was a heroic feat to even make the thing moderately coherent from one scene to the next. Worse still, the inert filmmaking also hamstrings these wonderful actresses, whose attempts to craft complex moments are more desperate than their characters’ plight to make ends meet. In that struggle, Moss is the most successful of the three, perhaps because hers is the most naturally compelling character, or maybe just because she wisely knew not to trust the material and create her own moments above and beyond.
But not even Moss can escape the inevitable machinations of this screenplay, which eventually uses each of its characters as pawns in a series of twists for which the word “unearned” isn’t tough enough. It’s hard to determine whether the film is playing us all for fools or if its first 80 minutes are so hapless that the twists just feel like cringe-worthy hail-marys, but you know something’s gone horribly awry when The Kitchen’s most interesting moments in retrospect are the pre-film production logos.