I guess DC Comics should be given some credit here — The Kitchen is originally a graphic novel published by them, written by Ollie Masters and drawn by Ming Doyle. This film adaptation, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, thus qualifies as a cinematic offering by DC that’s a tad better than the abysmal “DC Cinematic Universe” of superhero films of recent years.
That said, “tad” is perhaps the operative word here, as The Kitchen gets to be a little on the nose with its “female empowerment” themes, rendering them trite at times, occasionally even hypocritical, as these women evolve into even more ruthless monsters than the mobster husbands they take over for when they are sent to prison in the late 1970s (also the setting of the graphic novel). Perloff has previous co-writing credits on such films as World Trade Center (2006) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), and if The Kitchen proves anything, it’s that Berloff is better off as a team player. There is plenty to like about The Kitchen, but unfortunately Berloff’s direction and her writing are easily its two weakest elements.
How close is this movie to the story in the graphic novel, I wonder? I don’t read comic books. I can only hope this graphic novel in its original form is better, and doesn’t stumble so much over its own feminist themes. This movie is trying to hard, and in the end lacks narrative clarity.
It’s not to a fatal degree, at least. This movie isn’t bad — certainly not nearly as bad as a sore of 35 out of 100 at MetaCritic would suggest, or a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. The B- by audiences at CinemaScore seems much more reasonable, although by industry standards that’s a very low score. It’s as though this movie is a crushing disappointment. It’s not terrible! It just . . . isn’t great.
I’m really selling it, aren’t I? This is one of those movies that falls into the gray-area category of not feeling like a waste of my time, but not something I’m going to go out of my way to recommend to anyone else. If it has any selling point, it’s the actors — specifically, the women in it: Melissa McCarthy as the one housewife with a relatively decent husband; Tiffany Haddish as the black woman who never gained the trust of the Irish family she married into; Elisabeth Moss as the woman with a physically abusive husband; even Margo Martindale in the (as always) character part of a monster matriarch who is a no-nonsense bit. Among the many men with much smaller parts, the only standout is Domhnall Gleeson, who sheds his natural Irish accent in favor of a New York accent so convincing it takes a minute to realize it’s even him.
The film is also decently edited, and has several nice flourishes of cinematography as the camera moves through a Manhattan converted to look like it did in 1978, but I don’t know how many people besides me will care about that much. None of that really means anything without the strength of the performances, with three lead actors who have a workable onscreen chemistry. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss all have wide appeal, their only moderate crossover spreading out the appeal quite widely between the three of them. They have all been on better projects, but together here they lift the material so it doesn’t quite buckle completely under the weight of its own narrative contrivances.
I did get to a point where I struggled to understand whether I was supposed to be rooting for these women. The moral compromises they make are plain and obvious, and yet Andrea Berloff never really makes them part of her themes, of which The Kitchen is in short supply. It’s long on plot though, with a bit of a twist near the end that doesn’t quite make it all any better. All of that notwithstanding, the lead performances command attention, and reveal some of these actors, especially Tiffany Haddish, to be capable of better and richer things.