The mobsters in The Kitchen leave the gun and make the cannoli. The year is 1978. The place is Hell’s Kitchen, Brooklyn. And the three heroes – played by Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish – are as inseparable as a three-leaf-clover. They cook together. Eat together. And most importantly for an Irish family, drink together. But when their husbands go to jail for a robbery gone wrong, it’s their turn to work together and take over the family business.
Sound like Widows? It basically is. Only, this one is less a rehashing of Steve McQueen’s empowerment tale and more of a send up to the DC comic book of the same name. Okay, yes, it does steal from Widows and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at similar twists and turns. Don’t get it twisted, though: this is nothing like McQueen’s superior film. Andrea Berloff’s telling will have doctors around the country recommending it as a cheaper alternative to sleeping pills.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its lively moments. James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” makes for great table setting in the opening scene. As the three ladies make themselves useful as punching bags for their husbands, Berloff flashes her invisible sympathy card and it works. As someone who’s witnessed abuse first hand, it’s impossible not to feel for these characters, but it also helps to have graceful performers.
McCarthy plays Kathy, the charmingly reserved wife of an Irish mobster. At least her reserve is supposed to be charming; but with her husband in the klink, she turns the “would you steal bread to feed your family?” debate into “would you slaughter dozens to feed your family?” Not an easy decision for a mom with two growing youngsters.
The choice is easier for Claire. Moss, so great at evoking resilience in The Handmaid’s Tale, brings more of the same to her role here. Her husband, Rob, has a knack for beating her up Joe Pesci-style, which is a bad idea. After all, anyone who’s seen Handmaid knows how it’s going to end for him.
Haddish, meanwhile, is typecast as Ruby. A sassy dame from up-state, Ruby has enemies all over town, none more problematic than her mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), though.
You would think these three would be likely candidates for heroism, but they’re not. Without money coming in from their husbands, they decide to take over the killing people business. It’s strange to see Berloff try and rationalize their flagrant cruelty on the basis of their sex, though. An innocent Orthodox jeweler and federal agent have their heads blown off for not “cooperating.” Claire and her new boy-toy Gabriel (Domhnal Gleeson) chop up bodies for pleasure. Kathy, Claire and Ruby become what they despised in their husbands and Berloff doesn’t seem to care.
You will, though. Taking place during the NYC trash epidemic, the streets are piled knee high in spoiled bags and empty cans. Graffiti and blood paint the brick walls; it’s a stench you can practically smell. But that doesn’t mean the trash epidemic had to extend to the characters. Our sympathy for the trio is thrown out the window before the first act is even over. Kathy is revealed to have an addiction to power. Moss is a psychopath – not the good kind – and Ruby is just plain annoying. Gangster movies have always worked best as character studies, but Berloff’s offering lacks likable characters and a character of its own.
It’s clear this was supposed to be a Scorsese spinoff, with its catchy Fleetwood Mac songs, dark humor and stylized camerawork. But the result is style without substance. Also, there’s no style. As they rise in rank, the mean streets get bloodier and bloodier. Yet, the pacing and editing gets sloppier and sloppier. This is Berloff’s directorial debut and it shows. She struggles with visual structure and narrative coherence. Jumping from scene to scene as random as Apple Music on shuffle, I began to wonder if the script was being made up on the fly.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was; just as I’m not surprised by the movie’s outcome. August continues to be a wasteland for studios to dump failed blockbusters and by the time the film finally ends, the message reveals itself as the following: women can do everything men can do. It’s a message I usually would applaud. Yet, The Kitchen proves that that’s not always a good thing.
The Kitchen is a female empowerment movie disguised as a mob movie. With a message as dumb as "women can kill people too," this will make you want to leave the gun, leave the cannoli and leave the theater.