Legend has it that Miami Vice was born when the President of NBC, whom I (unfairly and probably incorrectly) like to imagine deep in the throes of a head-spinning fugue state around 11:30 in the morning on day 3 of a coke binge in the summer of 1984, scrawled the words “MTV Cops” on a sheet of paper and pitched it to a producer. We can imagine a similar scenario playing out in 2016 or 2017. Some producer on a flight from Los Angeles to Shenzhen to make a superhero movie pitch jolts awake from a psychedelic jet lag dream, fumbles for his iPhone, head lightly spinning from a single Lime-a-Rita before the flight, and scrawls “The Departed with women” in the Notes app. The Kitchen is born, and I sit down to watch it on a Tuesday night many months later in a suburban multiplex on the edge of the woods in North Florida.
It’s hard to talk about The Kitchen. I think all of us gathered in the multiplex on Discount Tuesday this week were extremely aware of the trail this movie is trying to blaze. The stars are badasses, alright? They don’t take any shit. They dominate every man in the film—with the exception of fathers and Italians—and we all love that. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “this gangster movie is good, but what if the wiseguys were women?” then this is probably the movie for you. I loved that part of it. But if you value good films or human life, it probably isn’t the movie for you. Let’s talk about that.
First, life and death. Like Stuber, which I talked about on Discount Tuesday a few weeks ago, The Kitchen kills with impunity. People die in this movie and nobody really cares. Heads are blown open; dead people are dragged on the sidewalk; bodies are dismembered and dumped in the Hudson River. Spoiler alert: Haddish and McCarthy sniffle for a moment when they kill their husbands, but the audience is discouraged from joining in these brief moments of quiet. Watching these badass women rampage is just too fun, I guess, for the filmmaker or the audience to go and turn the killers and the victims into humans. That would require empathy, right, and who wants to bother with that on Discount Tuesday in the summertime?
The Kitchen’s failures as an example of filmmaking art follow, in part, from all of this sexy dehumanization. If films are meant to shed some light on the human experience, death should do something. Take the gangster movies that this movie clearly wants to emulate. In The Godfather, benefiting from death makes Michael Corleone into a monster. Each killing in the film’s pivotal seizure-of-power sequence severs him from his humanity and isolates him from his family until, finally, a closing door figuratively seals him within his own personal hell. In Casino, death is a grotesque ritual which so scars the fantasy landscape that the killers operate in the depths of the desert. Death is a reminder of the cruel masters back east, and a consequence of flying too high. Goodfellas treats death like a cruel joke, but the audience clearly understands that Ray Liotta’s character is both hero and heavy. He’s a ghoul.
You may be wondering: what if all of the people who die in The Kitchen are bad guys? Does that make it OK, like Inglourious Basterds or revenge movies? It might, except The Kitchen isn’t about revenge or redemption, and the bad guys aren’t Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The “heroes” in this film kill the “villains” in order to become the villains. With the exception of one rapist—killed by a male savior/mentor instead of one of the badass women, it’s worth pointing out, as though some villains are still too formidable for women to handle—we don’t know anything about the small-time gangsters who die in this film except that they’re standing in the way of the “heroes” racing to reach rock bottom. There is a moment near the end of the film—in the nadir of the “dark night of the soul” every screenwriting manual will instruct budding artistes to include in the script—when Melissa McCarthy says that she’s built something too great to give up. I was left wondering: does she mean the criminal enterprise the hero-villains built from theft, rackets, blood, and graft; or just the relationships they made along the way?
It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about its moral and historical counterpoint: J.C. Chandor’s 2014 masterwork, A Most Violent Year. That film takes place just three years later and engages the late-seventies underworld this movie glorifies. It has everything this movie has: crooks, a gritty, desaturated New York cityscape, gangsters, a badass woman, even Hasidim. But instead of cruel, half-baked stereotypes, these are real people, living in a real place. Instead of racing to the bottom like the soulless heroines of The Kitchen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain struggle to do the right thing in a world that rewards badness. If Donald Trump is the Bizarro Obama, an inverse agent whose entire political program is built on undoing his predecessor’s legacy, The Kitchen is the Bizarro Violent Year. Its nihilism betrays the talents of the performers and craftspeople who brought it to life.