Hell Hath No Fury, I Guess
The morally and emotionally blunted The Kitchen can’t decide how to feel about its women
Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.
The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”
Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning-out of hundred-dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.
The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.
Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ’70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.