By The Nerdling
In the mid-1970s, three wives of mob lieutenants are faced with a grim future. Their husbands are sentenced to prison for the next three years, leaving them with not much. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are promised by the head Irish mobster, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), they will be taken care of. The three women are “family” after all. But their first envelope of cash is laughably light. When they offer to help the family in exchange for more money, Jackie threatens and belittles them. Tired of being seen as second class, the wives use their connections to undercut Little Jackie and become the protectors of Hell’s Kitchen.
I will confess, I really wanted to like The Kitchen. The graphic novels of the same name which this movie is based was a great series. McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss are some of my favorite actors working today. And it is a gangster movie written and directed by a woman about women taking control of their lives. The Kitchen was primed for me to love. But walking out of the theater, I was disappointed.
The script is… not good, condensing its nuanced source material into a generic underdog-comes-to-power premise. And these underdogs rise to power with none too much of a challenge. Director and screenwriter, Andrea Berloff’s attempts to infuse the rise of feminism in the ’70s (and the current fight for equality) into the story, but it falls flat with generic lines like “no woman never felt safe [in Hell’s Kitchen]. But now we are free to walk the streets.” The film instead focuses on montages of money collections and mob hits set to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Heart’s “Barracuda”.
One element which consistently took me out of the film was the love story between Claire and hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). Setting aside the two look like they could be twins, giving their affair a Lannisterian vibe, it is largely unsettling as Claire’s husband violently abuses her. Her falling for an apathetic killer seems like out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Clair’s evolution from battered wife to brutal assassin is easily the worst character arc of the film. In the comics, Claire’s progression of taking back her power from those who have beaten her down her whole life is gradual. She has to reconcile the violence of her marriage with the violence she perpetuates. In the film, it happens so quickly with no subtly, it comes off as comical. Thankfully Moss’s performance makes the perverse pill a little easier to swallow.
And that’s all The Kitchen has going for it. The performances of the three leads. The men in the movie are painted and performed as generically as women are portrayed in other traditional mobster films. Moss is great if a little too subtle for her narrative, but it is McCarthy and Haddish’s show.
Kathy and Ruby’s alliance is tenuous at best. Kathy is a legacy in the neighborhood. Her grandfather was once the head of the family. It is her word that convinces the businesses of Hell’s Kitchen to work with the three ladies and not Little Jackie.
Ruby is the outsider despite being married to one of the top lieutenants. A black woman in an Irish neighborhood (in the ’70s or now) is treated with hostility, but Ruby looks to give as good as she gets. She has plans and is ruthless in her journey to make them happen.
Kathy and Ruby often clash in how to handle the business creating great tension-filled scenes. The movie paints Kathy as the “hero” who only wants what is best for her family and neighborhood. McCarthy toes the line of strong, terrified, and resolute beautifully. Haddish gives Ruby a take no prisoners attitude with subtle hints of vulnerability beneath. It makes what could have been an unlikeable character easy to root for. Since she is an outsider, Ruby doesn’t let sentimentality or “family” mentality cloud her judgment in ways Kathy does. It makes for a fascinating dynamic, especially when the third act brings in the real villains for the new rulers of Hell’s Kitchen.
The Kitchen had a solid premise and source material to draw from. But bad editing, a generic script, and a first-time director unsure how to marry feminism into a mob story drags what could have been something great down. It is worth seeing for McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss’s performances. But the disappointment these women’s talents were wasted makes it difficult for me to want to recommend The Kitchen.
The Nerdling was born in the majestic land known as Texas and currently resides there after several years of journeying through Middle Earth in a failed attempt to steal the one Ring from that annoying hobbit, serving the Galactic Empire for a time, and then a short stint as a crew member on the Serenity. Since moving back to her homeland, Nerdling flirted with a hero reputation. Saving children from the dangers of adoring domineering, sparkly vampires (champions with souls are the only vampires worth loving) and teaching normals the value of nerdom, all while rooting for her beloved Dallas Stars. Then came the Sokovia Accords and her short spell of saving others came to an end. With Darth Vader’s reputation rightfully returning to badass status, Nerdling is making her way back to the Empire. They do have cookies, you know. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.