Too Many Cooks Spoil La Cocina

La Cocina

Kitchens are such ripe settings for dramatic fiction because everything is heightened to the nth degree. And the natural progression of a lunch or dinner rush lends itself naturally to a three-act structure: nerves, chaos, poetic aftermath. Kitchens are also places where societal dynamics are laid bare; from the entitled wealthy patrons out front to the low-paid cooks and kitchen cleaners in the back. 

But it can be more than that. Much more. Too much more.

La Cocina (Alonso Ruizpalacios, 2024), loosely based on Arnold Wesker’s 1957 play The Kitchen, explodes the traditional behind-the-scenes cooking drama, using the genre to provide a warts-and-all analysis of the State of America itself. Overblown, overcooked and overwrought, its ambition is both its greatest asset and its biggest curse. 

It starts in Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2002) mode, with blurry, almost buffering images of the Big Apple metro, some time in the early 00s. Mexican immigrant Estela (Anna Diaz) attempts to navigate her way to The Grill, a famous chophouse located just off Times Square. In a portent of the Very Meaningful Conversations to come, a Black homeless man waxes lyrically and incoherently about the most famous place in the most famous city in the most famous country in the world. This is all lost on Estela. She doesn’t speak any English. 

But English isn’t necessary in The Grill, which specialises in hamburgers, pizzas, curried chicken and the occasional lobster, food fit for the “fat Iowans” who just want a nice and easy place to eat after sightseeing on Broadway. (This makes a nice change from the Michelin-style cooking most kitchen dramas concern themselves with.) Legal workers make up the minority of their staff; undocumented workers from Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. 

She arrives on recommendation from the mother of line cook Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona, looking uncannily similar to Adrien Brody). Pedro is loveable and passionate, but also prone to mean outbursts and a lack of sensitivity. He’s in love with the güera (white girl) Julia (Rooney Mara), who works front of house. 

Rounding out the TV-show-esque cast are the philosophical pastry chef Monz (Motell Foster), the second-generation American-Mexican manager Luis (Eduardo Olmos), the manipulative boss Rashid (Oded Fehr) and the very angry (and very bald) head chef (Lee Sellars), alongside a whole other assortment of Moroccans, African-Americans, racist white dudes, and even more members of the Hispanic diaspora. 

Shot in black-and-white, mixing aspect ratios and intense profiles of its characters as if they were posing for their stamp portrait, Ruizpalacios uses a surfeit of style to weave us between characters over the course of a very long day. This all culminates in a bravura (although kind of expected post-Boiling Point [Philip Barantini, 2021]) long take that is filled with all the emotions and stress and chaos that comes with making everything work at peak time. 

But the 140-minute film also has to work in Pedro and Julia’s complex relationship, an abortion drama, the case of a missing 800 dollars from the till, and a grand statement on being a migrant in America. A deft touch was required. A bit of pepper here, a bit of salt there. This is far too overseasoned, losing sight of a well-executed main in favour of a scattershot, overstuffed buffet. 

Complemented by monologues so long they would make Mike Flanagan call an editor, a foul swearing sequence that tries and fails to imitate Spike Lee, dramatic sequences that eke every climax out to its very last drop, more than one moment where every single character gets a close-up in an eternally long pan (you only get one), a sex scene, a doctor scene, a fight scene, another fight scene, endless shouting matches, comic scenes, tragic scenes, everything-in-between scenes, and La Cocina rapidly sets fire to its initial goodwill with its exhaustive overreach. 

Ruizpalacios, coming off of the enjoyable-but-also-flawed A Cop Movie (2021), is obviously a talented director, but this talent has been left untamed, actively harming the play-like origins of the source material and the raw energy of his leads — especially Carmona, Mara and Diaz. 

I felt like this film really wanted to be the Hispanic version of The Bear (Christopher Storer, 2022). Being the Hispanic version of Dinner Rush (Bob Giraldi, 2000) would’ve more than sufficed.