One of the key roles of the director of a film is tone management. A film can veer from violence to drama to humor, look at Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. However, when a director fails to make clear choices about the tone of the scene, a film can feel frustratingly random from scene to scene. Such is the case with screenwriter Andrea Berloff's directorial debut.
Based on a DC Vertigo comic book, The Kitchen is set in Hell's Kitchen in 1978. When three Irish mobsters go to jail for a botched robbery, their wives move in to take over some of the business to make ends meet. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) are all women who have been underestimated, abused and side-lined by their husbands in various ways. When they see their opportunity to make their own money and more importantly their own decisions, they run with it.
Kathy quickly establishes herself as the planner of the team. She has genuine goals to restore the neighborhood as her father did. Ruby quickly becomes power-hungry and ruthless. Her greed begins to divide the trio. Claire learns how to stand up for herself. He husband was physically abusive. When war-vet Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) enters the picture, she learns from him how to fight back and the two fall in love.
All three leads are compelling in these roles. The gender flip is interesting, especially given the time period The Kitchen is set in. It is an interesting setup that could have made for an interesting picture. Yet the film falters too often. It veers from political and message heavy to exploitation and from violent and harrowing to funny and frothy, often all in the same scene. There is no sense of what Berloff wants the film to be. She clearly has big ideas on issues of equality and yet never gets the film to work.
The key missing element here is a window into the psychology of these characters. Moss gives a fine performance but we never understand how she goes from battered and timid to literally dismembering a body in the course of two scenes. Familiar gangster tropes are all here but they could be interesting given the gender swap. It's just the film never struggles to work dramatically.