Gender-flipped gangster saga ‘The Kitchen’ is like a gal-centric ‘Goodfellas’
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish & Elisabeth Moss
Directed by Andrea Berloff
Three women who are married to the mob take over their husband’s work in this gritty gangster drama set in the late 1970s in the New York City borough known as Hell’s Kitchen.
Based on a DC Comics series of the same name, The Kitchen follows the story of Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) after their mobster men are sent to prison. Other members of the local Irish gang of thugs offer them little in terms of support or protection; they’re outsiders, they’re women, and they’re on their own.
“They’ve been tellin’ us forever that we’re never gonna be good for nothin’ except havin’ babies,” says Ruby, indignantly.
So Ruby, Kathy and Claire decide to take matters into their own hands, muscling in on the gang’s rackets and skimming off their neighborhood protection money. Soon enough, they’re known around the Kitchen as “the Irish Girls,” they’ve got connections with labor unions and cops, they’re comfortable using guns and knives—and they’ve attracted the attention of a big-cheese Italian mob boss (Bill Camp) across town, in Brooklyn.
As you may have guessed, this isn’t a comedy—even though there are moments of dark, grim, gallows humor. McCarthy and Haddish both certainly know how to find the funny and shake out the silly. But just not in this movie.
The Kitchen is a character-driven crime drama, a period-piece that rocks its time and place with serious attention to detail. The streets look appropriately grungy and grimy, down to random bits of trash and puddles of mystery goop. The fashion is right-on, even when it’s basic or frumpy. Music from Heart, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Montrose and other acts from the era help set the scenes—as does a well-chosen cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” by the new country-rockin’ act The Highwomen (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires).
The three main characters are fully fleshed out; they’re complicated women, each in a different, difficult situation. McCarthy’s Kathy is a loving mom, raising two children with a husband (Brian D’Arcy James) who’s resentful of anything she tries to do outside the home. Haddish plays it tough and sassy as Ruby, a double outsider—she’s black and female, even though she’s the wife of the son (James Badge Dale) of the mob’s maleficent mol, Ma (Margo Martindale). Claire’s toxic relationship with the abusive Rob (Jeremy Bobb) melts away when he goes away to prison—and Gabriel, the intense Vietnam vet-next-door (Domhnall Gleeson), moves in. Moss, the Emmy-winning star of The Handmaid’s Tale, gets perhaps the movie’s sweetest—and grisliest—subplot as Claire and Gabriel bond.
We watch all three women break out of their shells. “I’m not gonna get knocked around ever again,” vows Claire. She certainly doesn’t use her bathtub for bathing ever again, either, at least not very often—well, you’ll find out when you see the movie.
Rapper-turned-actor Common plays the FBI agent assigned to surveille the Irish mob. He spends a lot of time in a cramped cargo van.
Bullets fly, blood spills, splats and spatters, bones crunch. This is a different kind of ladies’ night, for sure. It’s a mobster movie with a gender flip. But that’s glossing over something even bigger—The Kitchen has a top-down message about female empowerment. (The movie opens with Etta James singing her version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World,” which continues with the line, “…but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman, or a girl.”)
It’s the first feature film from director Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for her screenwriting (Straight Outta Compton). Award-winning French cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) gives everything a washy, time-capsule, Kodachrome-like sheen that recalls vintage 35mm flicks from the 1970s.
It’s not an epic piece of filmmaking; it’s a little too loose and too uneven. And there are a few too many goombah meatballs in the thick Irish stew, mostly unnecessary palookas that sop up time that could have been spent on colorful, much more interesting characters like Gleeson’s Gabriel—clearly haunted by terrible things he hints he’s seen and done—and Martindale’s Ma, the Bible-quoting mob matriarch who’s ascended to the top of her neighborhood’s otherwise male-dominated criminal cartel. But the movie is solidly grounded by its trio of outstanding lead actresses, and it’s a treat to watch them dig into roles that let them blast away at 1970s notions of what women could, should—and shouldn’t—do.
There are twists, turns, gotchas and spoilers that I wouldn’t dare divulge. There’s murder, muck and messes to mop up, and the movie brings up issues about power, control and the cold, hard costs of doing business when you decide to play big and get down and dirty.
“You go to war,” Brooklyn mob boss Alfonso Coretti tells them, “there’s no coming back.”
In other words, if you can’t stand the heat…stay out of The Kitchen.
In theaters Aug. 9, 2019