The Kitchen turns mob films into a bland melange
Andrea Berloff’s The Kitchen adds a healthy dose of problematic female empowerment to the classic mob film, and while this genre fan managed to have some fun with the film, there’s little holding it up for the casual movie goer, save for some decent performances from its starring cast, and a hilarious tutorial on butchering a body for ocean disposal.
When Irish mob wives Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss), and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) lose their abusive husbands to the slammer, the ladies decide to trade metaphorical kitchens: out of the family frying pan and into the Hell’s Kitchen fire. We see their quick ascent into organized crime glory through a quick passage of time that includes ever increasing levels of fly 70s fashion and all the hit songs you love (no complaints there). I did very much enjoy this visual aspect of the film. McCarthy, Moss, and Haddish play off the era very well.
How quickly this fun soon deteriorates into a mish-mash of interesting narrative threads that either don’t get their due diligence or are dropped abruptly by the meandering screenplay. One of these plotlines that I wanted to see more of was the cat-and-mouse game between the women and two FBI agents on their tail. By the time the cops’ importance is revealed to us, the setup for the surprise hardly makes it feel satisfying. Another interesting dynamic that the film oddly chooses to ignore is the relationship between Haddish’s Ruby and McCarthy’s Kathy. As the film progresses, there is a growing rivalry between the two, with Ruby acting more aggressive towards the Irish population they are meant to help. There’s a reason for it, but just like so many other revelations in this movie, the lack of a decent setup leaves the film having to resort to flashbacks in an effort to get you to believe the crumb trail was there all along. And when Ruby’s ulterior motive is made known to us, it feels like another wasted opportunity for a deeper conversation about societal and cultural issues.
I mentioned the performances of the three leads as a plus, and for the most part, they do what they can to lift this film, and legitimize its message of strong women. Full disclosure, I love Melissa McCarthy, and would watch her in anything. I thoroughly believe her character could run a crime ring no problem. Tiffany Haddish makes me wish she was the central character in this film for reasons I won’t divulge here for spoilers sake, but suffice it to say her background and motives would have made for a more interesting and genre-loyal film. Elisabeth Moss is the one that represents the issues for me. She’s great as the classic trope of a physically and emotionally abused woman, whose only sense of strength and empowerment comes from turning that violence into more violence. And to top it all off, she becomes romantically involved with the man who saved her from a rape, and later teaches her how to become the maniacal killer she becomes. Yikes.
As a homage to organized crime dramas, The Kitchen unfortunately suffers from a disjointed tone, with comedy and drama existing in equal yet incongruent amounts. The effect of which leaves the viewer with a deep sense of unease about how the message of the film should be taken as a whole. The one piece of comedy that works like gangbusters here, and will never not work in a mob film, is learning how to dispose of a dead body. Like Pesci, DeNiro, and Liotta digging up Billy Bats in Goodfellas, the only way to approach life surrounded by such violence is through absurdist dark humor. Domnhall Gleason’s matter-of-fact delivery sells the scene.
Hopes were high for this woman-led mobster film and I wish I liked it more, despite being entertained throughout its runtime. Perhaps I was there for the potential, more than the content.
The Kitchen opens today in Philly theaters.