A controversy over the second season of HBO’s behemoth series Big Little Lies emerged earlier this year, when the director of the second incarnation of the series, indie darling Andrea Arnold, reportedly lost creative control of the series after she’d turned her work into the network. HBO reportedly tinkered with the finished product to make it resemble the work of Jean-Marc Vallée, who had directed the critically acclaimed first season, originally conceived and structured as a miniseries. Why am I bringing this up in a review of the new film The Kitchen? Well, this is exactly what Warner Bros. Pictures (who also owns HBO) did to first-time director/Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Andrea Berloff.
The Kitchen centers around three Hell’s Kitchen mob wives in the year 1978. We have Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), the closest to ‘happily married’ of the bunch, a mother of two who mostly stays out of her husband’s business. Then there’s Claire (Elisabeth Moss), a battered woman, and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), who has always felt like an outsider in the world of the Irish mafia. Once their husbands are sent to prison, the mob is not taking care of these women, and the men in charge are not doing their jobs effectively. Kathy, Ruby, and Claire decide to take charge and take out the competition.
So much of this hour and forty-minute long movie takes place through montage. It’s infuriatingly similar to last year’s Widows, not only in plot, but also in shoddy story structure. Both are based on long-form source material – Widows was a British miniseries in the 1980s, The Kitchen is a series of graphic novels from DC Vertigo, and there’s just the basic bare minimum plot outline here, and that’s it. There are emotional moments these women play that go by in a flash, and it’s onto the next montage of the women walking down the gritty streets of Hell’s Kitchen, after the remainder of the preceding scene having taken place offscreen.
Melissa McCarthy is a comedic actor who has proven herself to be a force in dramatic roles. She’s so good in last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and she seems enthusiastic to broaden her horizons as an actress. And she is excellent here; everyone is, but nobody is given proper time to let a moment land, and that undermines every actor’s genuinely good work. Tiffany Haddish is another comedic actor who is dipping her toes in dramatic fare for the first time, and her work hints at a more exciting performer than audiences may have thought she was, but we’ll never know what the extent of that is. Elisabeth Moss, however, is having the most fun out of any of the leads. Her character aims to be the most empowered of the bunch and winds up being the most underdeveloped.
Domhnall Gleeson plays a love interest for Moss. He is a mild bright spot of the cast, as he has decent chemistry with Moss. Margo Martindale, who is one of my favorite living actors, is trapped in a role where she’s delivering half-baked intimidating lines in a genuinely indecipherable accent, and it’s a total insult to an actress who could have done amazing things with this role. We also have Brian D’arcy James, Brandon Uranowitz, Common and Bill Camp, who all have nothing to do. You get the impression that the real meat of these roles was cut in the editing process.
This brings me to my Big Little Lies/Andrea Arnold comparison. We know that Andrea Berloff is a talented screenwriter and she’s worked with some outstanding filmmakers. This would not suggest she would be this inept behind the camera. You get the idea she turned in a three-hour cut to the studio, and they cut it in half because this feels like half a movie. I know there’s an excellent gangster movie somewhere in here, and I would definitely be interested to see an extended cut, but this isn’t it. This is a hurried and carelessly edited mess of a genre picture, and the women behind and in front of the camera deserve much better.