Women have been underserved by and in movies for so long that it’s hard to know how we can ever catch up. We all know we need more movies directed, written and shot by women, especially women of color, as well as better roles and more opportunities for all women actors. But there’s no way to snap our fingers and make that happen, and the hard lesson is that not every filmmaker, regardless of gender, can pull off magic the first time around.
The Kitchen is the debut film from writer-director Andrea Berloff, co-writer of the 2006 film World Trade Center, as well as the 2015 Straight Outta Compton, and it has plenty going for it: A late-1970s New York City setting, with ample opportunity for vivid grittiness and killer costumes; a storyline with some good, comically grim details (including a lesson in corpse dismemberment, a task that can apparently be undertaken even in the smallest New York apartment bathtub); and a cast led by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, all of whom are currently at the top of their game.
But the tone of The Kitchen—which was adapted from a DC Comics’ limited series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle—is off from the start. In fact, the movie never finds its tone at all: Scenes that ought to be played for laughs, even nervous ones, are laid out straight. The movie struggles to be jaunty in the early scenes, and then awkwardly tries to shift to a darker vibe; it’s strained in every mode. And it’s so underlit—as if it were desperately channeling the artistry of the late cinematographer Gordon Willis—that you might be tempted to schedule a glaucoma test.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Kitchen follows three women living in rough-and-tumble early Ed Koch-era Hell’s Kitchen whose husbands, members of a local Irish gang, have just been tossed into prison. McCarthy’s Kathy has two kids and wonders how she’s going to keep the household going; Haddish’s Ruby is married to the son of the gang’s matriarch (Margo Martindale, in a thankless role), but hates both her controlling husband and her barbarous mother-in-law; and Moss’ Claire has been so abused by her husband, physically and emotionally, that her self-esteem has vaporized. The three join forces when they realize that their husbands’ gang isn’t going to take care of them, financially or otherwise. They also figure out that the gang, which runs a neighborhood protection racket, has been underprotecting the small businesses it’s being paid to serve. So they take over and become so successful that their empire expands exponentially. It’s not really clear how this works, though we do get lots of shots of the women wearing groovy 1970s clothes and counting heaps of money.
What should be a fun, brassy, tough-minded fantasy ends up a listless traffic jam. One character’s behavior shifts radically and it’s impossible to know why. Domhnall Gleeson, who plays an ex-gang member brought over to the women’s cause, has a lovely scene with Moss—the picture momentarily sparks to life. But mostly, The Kitchen flounders, taking one page from Quentin Tarantino here and another from Martin Scorsese there, without ever finding its own sense of authorship. Even the movie’s soundtrack—featuring Etta James, Heart and Fleetwood Mac, among others—feels like a desperate attempt to set a mood that never quite jells. There’s not enough heat in this Kitchen, but there’s nothing cool about it, either.