The Kitchen

(2019) ** 1/2 R
102 min. Warner Bros. Director: Andrea Berloff. Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Bill Camp, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian d'Arcy James, James Badge Dale.

/content/films/5173/1.jpgComic-book movies don’t always look alike. Case in point: there’s neither a superpower nor a cape to be found in The Kitchen, although it’s based on a miniseries from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint (home to Constantine, Preacher, Stardust, and A History of Violence). Outside of force of will, the dominant power in The Kitchen comes from handguns, which adds a layer of discomfort to this tough-minded period piece about the Irish mob lording over Hell’s Kitchen circa 1979.

Screenwriter Andrea Berloff makes her directorial debut with The Kitchen, which proceeds from a crackerjack premise: when three Irish mob lieutenants (Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb) get sent up the river, their respective wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) have little choice but to take their place and become the earners. Kathy has no poker face—the mother of two small children wears a stricken expression for most of the film—but she “Irishes” up her coffee and gets down to business all the same.

“You’re the smart one,” Ruby tells Kathy. Of the three women, Ruby starts out with the thickest skin from facing racism on top of sexism as a black wife in an Irish crime family. Claire feels the weakest but has the most fiery motivation to build her strength after years of domestic abuse, saying, “I am not getting knocked around ever again.” For most of the film, the women are defined each by her singular character trait and collectively by their shared mission: to remind the men (and a sour matriarch played by Margo Martindale) “what family means” and prove that, if the men won’t look out for them, women can do it for themselves. (In one of the film’s ironies, Claire must learn the ways of ultraviolence from her extramarital boyfriend, played by Domhnall Gleeson).

Perhaps because the culture has acclimated to top-notch long-form drama on television, The Kitchen feels too sketchy in its plotting and character development. The raw materials are here for an interesting look at male-female power dynamics, but what’s pieced together from them rarely connects with the audience in any meaningful way. This story could have something interesting to say about what it means to rise up in a man’s world. Does it mean behaving like men? Proving there’s a better way? Declaring independence from men or declaring truces? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. To the extent that the film answers these questions, it does so in a fashion more muddy than complex. When the script does get pointed, it also gets stupidly blunt (“I’ve never felt stronger, “ Kathy tells her dad. “You’re a criminal, Kathy,” he replies).

When The Kitchen does get interesting, it seems like an accident, like the moment when one of the women expresses that, for her, it’s all meant getting out from under the constant fear of being a woman in a hostile social environment. The irony of escaping that by entering into a career of constant fear goes unspoken. Rather than thoughtful engagement in these themes, the film situates itself awkwardly between the earnest and the glib, with simple-minded black humor emerging from the women’s self-empowering, self-righteous embrace of cold-blooded murder.

What begins as a seemingly kinder, gentler neighborhood protection racket becomes better living through guns and a vaulting ambition to expand beyond the Kitchen. Because of its hurried pacing, the film doesn’t quite make us feel the potentially Shakespearean sweep of this arc, and the leading performances feel similarly hemmed in by the script’s limitations. These women are both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to themselves and each other, which could be fascinating stuff. Instead…well, maybe The Kitchen does look like a comic-book movie after all.

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