Gangland heavies have been shooting their way across the screen since the earliest days of movie history, nearly every single one full of crooked men. Which is more or less the problem facing Kathy Brennan (Mellissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) in The Kitchen. They’re three long-suffering New York women who band together and take over their husbands’ unsteady criminal empire that’s full of too many crooked men wasting time, money and firepower, placing their egos over the demands of a business that has yet to maximize its full, bloody potential. It’s a setup, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, that seems forceful and methodical entertainment that unfolds a story of righteous female ascendancy within the male-dominated underworld of Hell’s Kitchen in the late ’70s. The gender politics potential is as interesting as the for-the-most part solid trio of leads, even when the movie itself proves less than persuasive.
Kathy has two kids with Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), the only guy in the bunch who might conceivably be described as decent. Claire is regularly beaten into submission by her husband, Rob (Jeremy Bobb), while Ruby mainly dwells in the shadow of hers, Kevin (James Badge Dale), and of her vile mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). The three men work together as the operation’s chief heavies, and when they’re arrested after a robbery and sentenced to three years in prison, the gangleader, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), assures the wives they’ll be well taken care of. It turns out to be an empty promise. In desperate need of cash, the three women join forces and swiftly make their way up the ladder — maybe a bit too swiftly and simply rushed in directorial execution. Before long they’re swaggering their way through a patchy rags-to-riches montage: We see them gaining the power and threatening the reign of Little Jackie and his goons. Montages can make for effective dramatic shorthand, especially with a worn-out template like the gangster movie, but here that shorthand feels more like a shortcut. The plot itself in The Kitchen is in such constant flux, both overstuffing and under developing, that it never gets a chance to fully breathe.
Of the three leads, Moss has the most experience as a dramatic actress. But it’s McCarthy who easily steals the spotlight of the three, as her Kathy character is the only one in the film whose arc can’t be reduced to a one-note power narrative. The Kitchen does try to add some complexity to Claire’s and Ruby’s stories in its second half, but by then the shallow empowerment has already been baked in — particularly when it comes to the Claire character, whose insanely quick and eager transformation from battered wife to cold-blooded killer would speak volumes about cycles of violence in a more thoughtful film. As for Haddish, she keeps her head above water in her first major dramatic role for the most part, struggling at times at just selling the tough, cocky kingpin nature of her character and the browbeaten wife she plays in the beginning of the story.
But something that Haddish’s Ruby brings is a clear sense that she has more than a few things she’d like to vent as the lone black member of a predominately Irish family, which means she’s had to endure misogynist and racist contempt. But as with most of the character wrinkles, the aforementioned dimension is acknowledged, and at one point articulated, but never fully dramatized. It brings to mind last year’s Widows, a solid heist thriller about three women in similarly desperate straits, in the way it welded the mechanics of genre to razor-sharp observations about race, class and gender. In that movie, suspense and sociopolitical illumination effectively flowed from the same narrative source.
The Kitchen is also based on a DC Vertigo graphic novel, but its version of New York City is a bit sanitized. The costuming seemingly lives in a purgatory somewhere between authenticity and tacky sanitization. As does the insufferably on-the-nose needle drops featuring not one but two Fleetwood Mac tracks. But those aren’t the only things wrong here; the confusing tones; the disjointed, presumably triage editing. But maybe the biggest problem is that Berloff won’t commit to the villainy of her main characters, constantly going back and forth. It’s amusing at first, to see the three take the throne, partly because of the three leads (Bill Camp is also great in his few scenes as a reptilian mafioso).
Not everyone of writer-director Andrea Berloff’s flashy impulses is bad; there’s a burst of shock in a moment or two. But at the center of it all, Berloff not only chooses to ignore potentially rich thematic material — what makes a “strong female character?” Is it inherently empowering for women to behave as brutally as men? — she instead allows choppy pacing, clunky dialogue and loose suspense to pass along. (Berloff has done this in the past with her best known work, co-writing Straight Outta Compton, another film that was willing to sand down the edges of its story in order to fit more conveniently in a pre-determined genre formula.) Stories, and crime dramas in particular, are under no obligation to make their characters moral. In fact, many are often more interesting when they’re not. But one would hope that these antiheros would just be more exciting to watch. An undercooked, clumsy mess, The Kitchen wastes the potential of its three leads for an exhausting, lukewarm execution.