Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss in The Kitchen (Photo: Warner)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Andrea Berloff
STARS Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish
Don’t let the headliners fool you. Despite the presence of powerhouse comediennes Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, The Kitchen is no laughing matter. Rather, it’s yet another crime drama that’s married to the mob, albeit with one key difference. Instead of a Tony Montana or a Tommy DeVito or one of the other wiseguys or goodfellas driving the story, this one’s all about the ladies.
Initially, Kathy Brennan (McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are presented as the damsels in distress and under duress. Set in the late 1970s in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen district, the film reveals that the three women are married to mid-level Irish mobsters of varying temperaments. Kathy is the luckiest of the trio, since Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is a devoted husband and father. Ruby, meanwhile, is married to the hotheaded Kevin (James Badge Dale), who cares more for his influential mob mother (Margo Martindale) than his oft ignored wife. And Claire is simply saddled with Rob (Jeremy Bobb), a lout who so enjoys beating his wife that he doesn’t even care that his pummeling once caused her to lose their unborn baby.
A robbery gone wrong leads to all three men being sent to prison, thus leaving their spouses with no financial support. Mob boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford) reneges on his promise to help them, forcing the women to take matters into their own hands. Learning that Little Jackie and his crew have been taking protection money from local businesses without actually providing any protection, they decide to offer their services. Pay us, they declare, and we will protect you.
It’s a gamble that works, as Kathy, Ruby and Claire begin raking in the green even as Little Jackie sees red. But it’s not long before the turf war begins, leaving dead bodies littering the landscape. Furthermore, there are as many complications as corpses: The Italian mob boss across town (a wonderful Bill Camp) sees the potential in teaming up with these women; a mentally shaky hitman (an appropriately low-key turn by Domhnall Gleeson) reappears on the scene and becomes Claire’s lover; and early parole means that the hubbies will be returning home earlier than expected.
Based on a comic book series produced by DC’s Vertigo label, The Kitchen certainly isn’t lacking for conflicts. What it’s missing, though, is any semblance of a moral center to hold it together. Of course, that sounds like the last thing a mob movie generally needs, but in the cases of, say, 1931’s Little Caesar, 1990’s GoodFellas, or Scarface (either the 1932 or 1983 version), the pleasure comes in watching these amoral yet intriguing characters enjoy the good-bad life before ultimately learning that crime doesn’t pay. In The Kitchen, writer-director Andrea Berloff clearly views her protagonists as heroines, in the process confusing murderous rage with feminist ideology.
Initially, there’s pleasure in watching these women who’ve been kept under heel their entire lives get the upper hand in a disgustingly patriarchal society. But, to quote everyone’s favorite uncle, with great power comes great responsibility, and we see none of that in The Kitchen. Are we supposed to cheer when one of these women orders the execution of a virtuous cop? Are we supposed to applaud when one of them masterminds the slaying of an innocent Jewish storekeeper? The film thinks so.
In one of the most odious sequences, one of the women allows the slaying of a family member — a criminal, yes, but one who’s more harmless than most and one whose greatest offense is that he lets his fragile male ego interfere with his familial love. The reason for his murder isn’t, as initially posited, because he placed his children in a potentially dangerous situation (a sound reason). As our heroine explains, it’s because he’s a man and she’s tired of living in a man’s world. That’s an excellent reason to stage a strike; it’s a terrible one to approve a killing.
It also doesn’t help that The Kitchen comes on the heels of Steve McQueen’s Widows, which landed on my 10 Best list for 2018. Similar in that it also focuses on women who pick up the criminal reins when their men are removed from the equation, that one was blessed with an abundance of riches in terms of its character dynamics, its complexity of issues, and its unpredictability of plot. The Kitchen only offers those ingredients by the milligram, ultimately resulting in a recipe for disaster.