Who doesn’t love to laugh? Some of my favorite movie-going experiences involve precious few films that make me laugh from start to finish. I can vividly remember moments of uncontrollable laughter from movies such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”—when the phrase “laugh out loud” actually meant “laughing out loud” and not an acronym you text back when someone sends you a marginally amusing meme. The power of laughter is cathartic and in these polarizing times can help cure all sorts of ills. That’s why I encourage everyone to go see the funniest movie of 2019, “The Kitchen.”
I know a movie has made an impact on me when I can recall its moments days later and laugh almost as hard as I did the first time. “The Kitchen” is that kind of movie. Set in New York in the late 1970s, the film follows three Irish mob wives. After their husbands are incarcerated for botching a holdup, the women are left in the cold, struggling to make ends meet.
Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is a loyal wife who wants to do right by her family. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) faces sexism and racism as the wife of Irish mob royalty. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is an oddball with a fighter’s spirit. After their allowance gets cut by the new guys in charge, Kathy and company decide the best way to take care of their families is to go into the same racket that got their husbands thrown in jail: running protection in Hell’s Kitchen.
Through their savvy and street smarts, the wives get payouts from local businesses and help keep the crime business running smooth. This becomes a major problem for the existing Irish mobsters in the neighborhood, who decide these sassy ladies need to be taken down a peg or two. It results in some tense confrontations and an attempted rape.
At the onset, it doesn’t seem the setup for the funniest movie of 2019—because “The Kitchen” isn’t supposed to be funny. At least, not in the way I found myself belly laughing during its brisk runtime. The film is intended to be a gritty New York mob drama, but it doesn’t work with the way director Andrea Berloff has staged things. Everything about the film feels wonderfully awkward, from the awful, deadpan delivery of its leading ladies to the cinematography trying to fit all three actors into the same shot, shoulder to shoulder, whenever possible. Berloff manages to make everything surreal and silly. The characters are paper-thin, so the stakes are laughably low.
Tiffany Haddish is a gifted comedic talent. Apparently, she has a higher gear for humor when she’s trying to play it straight. It feels like she’s trying to restrain her larger-than-life personality to fit the role, but everything she does reads comedy. Take my favorite scene in the movie: Ruby is walking down the sidewalk with her racist, abusive mother-in-law (the great Margot Martindale), who calls her names and makes all sorts of insulting comments at every opportunity. They pause at a stairwell before heading into a restaurant, and Ruby pushes her down a flight of stairs. She looks down at the old woman’s crumpled body and yells, “Restaurants aren’t open on Mondays, bitch!” and then walks away. I couldn’t stop laughing. Everything from the dialogue, the delivery, the framing to the overall story is so wrong. In theory, it’s a moment when the audience should cheer—when the narrative’s punching bag finally says “no more.” But Ruby murders her mother-in-law in cold blood. She doesn’t give her a verbal lashing or stand up to her; she pushes a 70-year-old woman down a flight of stairs to her death.
Compare this to a scene earlier in the movie: One of the mobsters tries to sexually assault a character and is shot and killed as a result. In the aftermath, the intended victim begins to brutally kick her attacker’s body over and over again. I can understand the moment and recognize the dark humor in this act of savage brutality because the punishment (kicking a corpse) fits the crime (attempted sexual assault and murder). I had more trouble empathizing with a character pushing an old woman down a flight of stairs because she doesn’t like her salty mouth.
There’s so much wrong with “The Kitchen.” It’s like the George Costanza of crime movies. Every impulse the creators had runs counter to how things should have been made. And like George Costanza, the movie is relentlessly tragic and translates to grade-A comedy.
As a gritty crime drama, “The Kitchen” is a dumpster fire. As an unintentional comedy, it’s the funniest movie of the year.