When I saw the trailer for director Andrea Berloff's The Kitchen, about a trio of housewives who take over their husbands' mob operation after the boys are sent to prison, it looked so off the wall yet strangely plausible that I almost thought I was going to see the claim "based on a true story."
I didn't and it isn't. Like seemingly everything else these days, it's based on a comic book, which isn't a mark against it. Comic books can be quite creative, sometimes even profound. Sometimes.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elizabeth Moss star, respectively, as Kathy, Ruby and Claire, the spouses of gangsters embroiled in the Irish mob of Hell's Kitchen during the 1970s. With their husbands incarcerated, the wives are left with no income beyond a pitifully inadequate stipend from the local boss. That's when they decide that they'll take over the rackets, specifically protection, which will necessitate going to war over the Westside turf.
The question, of course, is if meek, unassuming housewives can muster the aggression they'll need to take over a criminal underworld run by men, a proposition that could just as easily fuel a typical McCarthy-headlined comedy. It's not a huge step for Claire, whose abusive husband left her with a desire for revenge against the male sex, which actually gives Moss the best role in the picture. Haddish gets some mileage out of the "race card" as most of Ruby's husband's Irish family resent her presence and membership. I'm not sure, in the absence of any issues between Kathy and her husband and/or family, I can buy her financial worries for their children as her motivation for such a drastic life reorientation. I have financial worries, too, but that doesn't mean I'm going out to gun down a bunch of people. It just means I work 18 hours a day instead of 16.
In fact, I question a lot of the motivations in The Kitchen, and because of that, the characterizations, as well. This isn't something I necessarily blame on the principle actresses, who all seem up for their roles, especially, as previously mentioned, Moss. One of the key issues is whether McCarthy, known primarily as a comedian, can transition from comedy to drama, even tragedy, which should have been answered by her Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, although that film is her least-seen starring vehicle. I'll say that she can, and any deficit in terms of her characterization is due to the screenplay and the director, not to McCarthy herself.
There are directors out there who can take a cast and, within moments, give them enough bits of business to not only explain their characters, but to make you love (or hate) them. It's true of any genre, but in terms of the "New York crime family" movie, the masters are, of course, Coppola and Scorsese. In The Godfather's opening 20 minutes alone, Coppola introduces us to 20 or 30 speaking parts that we all remember and love from the get-go.
I realize that comparing first-time director Berloff to Coppola and Scorsese may not seem very fair, but I'm not asking for Connie Corleone's wedding, just a single character that I feel like I can remember and care about. I don't feel like I got one in The Kitchen, not even old hand Margo Martindale, one of America's best actresses, here cursorily wasted as Ruby's mother-in-law and godmother to her son's "family," a part which should have been more substantive. As should Domnall Gleeson's mysterious hitman, Gabriel. I thought his part as General Hux in the Star Wars saga was fairly bland, but it's a rich stew compared to this celery stick.
The characters don't know where they're going, so how can the film? The ambivalence and indecision is best summed up by an unexpected plot twist toward the end, after which the audience is left dangling. It's possible the producers of The Kitchen anticipated serving up a sequel, but I suspect the dining room will be empty.