Writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle crafted a crime drama with bold style but thin plotting and characterization in the 2015 DC Vertigo miniseries The Kitchen, and the new film version from writer-director Andrea Berloff is similarly underwhelming, although it changes most of the plot details. The basic set-up remains the same, as the wives of three Irish-American gangsters in 1970s Hell's Kitchen take over as crime bosses when their husbands wind up in prison. Berloff's version changes character backgrounds and motivations, adds and subtracts subplots and supporting characters and ends in a more definitive, triumphant fashion, but the changes don't make much of an improvement.
The premise still has plenty of potential, and Berloff sets the scene effectively at the beginning, establishing the three women in their different relationships to their criminal husbands. Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) is a dutiful housewife who genuinely loves her husband Jimmy (Brian d'Arcy James) and is happy raising her two young kids. Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) is an outsider in the Irish-American community, a black woman who married a white man (James Badge Dale) and was never accepted by his family or associates. Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) is a bitter, broken woman who is unable to stand up to her abusive husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb).
When the trio's husbands get picked up by the cops after robbing a convenience store for quick cash, the small-time local hood who takes over the operation promises he'll provide for them, but the money isn't nearly enough to get by. So Kathy, Ruby and Claire decide to take matters into their own hands, at first tentatively and then with more enthusiasm, maintaining and then expanding their husbands' business, with a little help from ruthless hitman Gabriel O'Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), who has a thing for Claire. The women's journey toward realizing their own power offers a few thrills, especially as they stand up to (and defeat) mean who consistently underestimate them.
But Berloff too often gives the characters speeches that just bluntly state the themes of female empowerment, rather than illustrating that evolution via character development. Although they've theoretically known each other for many years, the three women barely have any personal connections, and Claire especially spends long stretches of the movie off on her own, in a promising but ultimately fruitless story about her increasing appetite for violence. The pacing is choppy, abruptly introducing major characters and giving little sense of the passage of time.
Berloff, a screenwriter (Straight Outta Compton, Sleepless) making her directorial debut, is clearly heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese's gangster films, but the best The Kitchen can muster is a sort of Mean Streets Lite, with lots of uninspired, obvious needle drops on the soundtrack (Berloff clearly loves Fleetwood Mac). Although the movie opens with a throwback '70s-style Warner Bros. logo, the visual style is bland and sanitized, a theme-park version of '70s-era New York City with cartoonish wardrobe choices.
Comedic performers McCarthy and Haddish have already proven their abilities to take on dramatic material, and McCarthy gets the most fleshed-out character in the movie, but the character development is still superficial. It's hard to feel the impact of the various betrayals and confrontations when we barely understand who these people are. Moss is the most accomplished dramatic performer of the main trio, but she gets the most truncated arc, cut off before it can reach its full potential. Margo Martindale as a supposedly menacing crime matriarch and Common as an FBI agent on the gangsters' trail both mostly stand in the background and look concerned before their characters get unceremoniously written out.
A third-act twist falls completely flat, undermining the movie's theme of marginalized women realizing their worth, and creating more plot holes than it fills in. The tone is as inconsistent as the plotting, with weak jokes alongside moments of nasty violence, neither of which are particularly convincing. Characters are built up as major threats and then dispatched as afterthoughts, and there's no consistent antagonist to focus the story. Both the comic and the movie try to make the internal tension among the three women into the real destructive force, and neither one quite pulls it off. The reasons for the women turning against each other are poorly defined, and even by the end of the movie, it's difficult to get a feel for who these people are or what they actually want.
Berloff is clearly playing with the conventions of gangster and exploitation movies, but she too often takes the safer route instead of offering up a radical feminist subversion of genre conventions. The movie presents a more traditional rise-and-fall-and-rise gangster arc than the comic does, ultimately celebrating gangster cliches more than it challenges them. Without a strong, distinctive perspective, The Kitchen turns into just another derivative crime drama, regardless of its time period or the gender of its lead characters.
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss and Domhnall Gleeson, The Kitchen opens in theaters Friday.