Aug 12, 2019
It’s Matinee Monday, and today we’re reviewing another DC Vertigo comic book adaptation, joining shows like “Constantine”, “Preacher”, and “Lucifer”, and feature films like, well, “Constantine”, “V for Vendetta”, and “A History of Violence”. I’ll let you know how it stacks up, especially for a Vertigo fan like myself, but for a few other films in the same vein, check out “The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot” (Episode #533), “Predators” (Episode #529), and “The Highwaymen” (Episode #493).
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Today’s movie is “The Kitchen”, the DC Vertigo adaptation written and directed by Andrea Berloff, based on the comic series of the same name written by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. The film follows Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) – three women in early 1978 whose husbands end up in prison after being picked up during a robbery. When the Irish mob can’t provide enough for them to live on, the ladies take control of the mob’s operations, and become the queens of Hell’s Kitchen.
Mature comic books have always been a favorite of mine. At an early age, I would thumb through my uncle’s boxes of comic books, all the Marvel and DC books from his childhood and early adulthood. I read a lot of comic books, then bought a lot more once I had a paycheck, but after a while, I was priced out of most titles, and their seemingly endless (and admittedly awesome) multi-title crossovers. I was starting to realize you could only tell certain kinds of stories on a regular basis within their shared universes, mostly superheroes struggling against supervillains, and with the exception of a few books like “The Punisher”, there wasn’t much in terms of R-rated content. Eventually, I gave up on comic books all together, and finished up high school and college.
It wasn’t until I had a much larger paycheck that I thought about comic books as a hobby again, this time in the early 2000s, and that was when I discovered DC Vertigo while thumbing through back issues. And when I say discovered, I mean bought and binged series after series available as trade paperbacks. I burned through “The Sandman”, “Transmetropolitan”, “Preacher”, “DMZ”, “Y: The Last Man”, and I still have them all on the shelf, just waiting to be read again. I kicked myself for missing all of these titles during my comic hiatus, but I loved consuming the media all at once. And what made these stories awesome was that they were all set in their own worlds, telling stories of hyper-capitalist futures, and journalists reporting in the middle of the second United States civil war, or a world where there’s only one man left. Stories like “The Kitchen”, which reimagined the late 1970s from an empowering perspective, and a clever play on words to boot.
Comics as a medium have become a fertile ground for developing video content, on the large, small, and even phone screen. Comic books and graphic novels strike a happy medium between written and visual storytelling. Comic books are a kind of intentional storyboard, which can either make the adaptation better or worse, and that largely depends on the story. If the comic book’s story is focused on spectacle, as so many of the Marvel and DC titles are, then recreating those frames is almost a necessity, and a joy as we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the comic book’s story is focused on characters, as in the case of “The Kitchen”, then a certain amount of translation has to go into the adaptation, to find a film story that captures the comic book story, and then lean into whatever makes that story worth adapting.
Berloff was given a lot of liberties to expand what was a limited series of comic books into over a hundred minutes of visual content. The original series told a tight story, charting the rise of the three women and giving us glimpses into their previous lives. Berloff’s adaptation greatly expands the story on a number of levels, delving much deeper into the characters and story than what existed in the original series. It’s the right move, but it adds a lot of weight to the story, which begins to strain against the story limitations for an effective film adaptation. Instead of a streamlined rise to power film with a stylish 1970s background, and the potential for a sequel film, we get enough content and character for a limited series, and way too much for one film.
And what an amazing limited series that would be, especially with the star power of Haddish, McCarthy, and Moss. Instead of getting a brief five minutes of Claire’s abusive past, we could take the time to establish her character’s past from more than a single shocking scene. Instead of making a few token additions to the script for making Ruby a black woman, we could explore the very real interplay between the Irish and black communities in New York during the time period. We could really see what it’s like to try and raise children on the scraps that Kathy had, instead of breezing over that struggle to get through the story.
In the effort to tell a larger, more diverse story, the superstar cast ends up being underutilized. The characters are underdeveloped, and our relationship to the characters also never develops, because we’re rushed from event to event. Berloff does great work developing the time period, including all the expected racism and realism, but we don’t get a whole lot of time to appreciate it. All three leading actresses turn in great performances, but don’t always have great chemistry on screen, another downside of rushed storytelling. I’m not sure it deserves the categorically low scores from the critics, but it does have a lot of room for improvement, and maybe a better opportunity as a limited series.
“The Kitchen” is a flawed adaptation of an excellent story, expanding too much into the film medium to be effective. Characters are severely underdeveloped, which limits the range and performance of the three leads. Fans of mob stories, or fans of the cast, will probably enjoy this film. Just be ready for a few stomach turning moments and themes, and then maybe check out the limited series for your own compare and contrast.
Rotten Tomatoes: 21%
One Movie Punch: 5.5/10
“The Kitchen” (2019) is rated Rand is currently playing in theaters.