Movie Review: The Kitchen

Great performances can't quite overcome this female centric gangster film's uneven tone.

It’s almost impossible to review The Kitchen without mentioning last year’s far superior Widows, so let’s just get that out of the way first. Yes, the films have nearly identical premises—I joked with a friend that The Kitchen was in the “extended Widows universe.” But there are a few notable distinctions. As the title indicates, in Widows, three women band together to form a gang in the wake of their bad-guy husbands’ deaths. In The Kitchen, the wives of a trio of two-bit gangsters take over the turf when their husbands are in jail. Also, Widows takes place in the present day. The Kitchen takes place in the ’70s—at the height of the women’s lib movement—and it never lets you forget it.

In a weird coincidence (or perhaps not), The Kitchen starts out almost exactly the same way Widows does, albeit presented with far less finesse. Our three heroines—Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elizabeth Moss)—are saying goodbye to their Irish gangster husbands, who are about go on a job. It’s swiftly established that Kathy’s husband (Brian d’Arcy James) is the only one who is a relatively loving spouse and father (she’s also the only one with kids). As for Ruby’s husband, Kevin (James Badge Dale), and Claire’s husband, Rob (Jeremy Bobb), they are equal parts abusive and dismissive. When the men get arrested, their wives are told the neighborhood head gangster will provide for them. What he offers, however, is a pittance and Ruby and Kathy decide to take matters into their own hands.

The fact that their imprisoned spouses are unaware of their activities is actually a selling point for The Kitchen in my mind. It adds an element of a ticking clock. What will happen when their men get out of jail? Will these macho guys accept their wives as the new kingpins? (Whatta you think?)

Still, it’s odd to see a movie about three women turning into hardened gangsters—and yes, killers—framed as a “you go, girl!” empowerment tale, but that’s at least partly what The Kitchen does. Claire is a particularly bizarre character. Previously a meek woman who was constantly abused by men (a la the Elizabeth Debicki character in Widows), she takes a particular, almost visceral shining to murder, as a form of vengeance (and self-actualization). Joined by her new beau—a sociopath with a heart of gold, if you will, played by Domhnall Gleeson—she especially enjoys the vivisection of corpses in the bathtub before they are dumped in river. You go, girl?

The film’s awkward empowerment narratives are met by an equally awkward tone, which vacillates between Scorsese-wannabe gangster tropes and a more lighthearted approach to the material, including a recurring bit where our heroines brazenly dodge traffic every time they cross a busy street. As for the Hell’s Kitchen sets and the ’70s wardrobes, they seemed a bit too on the nose (did you know that Hell’s Kitchen was filled with trash?). Similarly, the ’70s feminism references are laid on thick: “All Gloria Steinem and shit,” one character says admiringly to Kathy. “Good for you.”

But there was enough that I enjoyed, including strong supporting work from Gleeson and the always welcome Bill Camp as a drolly amused Brooklyn mob boss who instantly recognizes that these she-gangsters are much shrewder than their male counterparts. Margo Martindale also turns up, as she is wont to do, as Ruby’s mother-in-law, an aging mob matriarch wedded to the status quo.

As for the leads, despite the oddness of her character, it was gratifying to see the gifted Moss do something besides stare defiantly at the camera after a “hilariously” counterintuitive needle drop (i.e., most of what she does in The Handmaid’s Tale). Haddish mostly plays it straight as the gruffest of the group (a few critics have groused over a twist involving her character, but I found it oddly satisfying). And finally, I’m just madly in love with the direction of Melissa McCarthy’s career these days. She has proven, with this film and Can You Ever Forgive Me? that’s she’s as brilliant a dramatic actress as she is a comedic one, which is saying a lot. Kathy grows in confidence and nerve with each frame—and it’s fun to watch this Little League mom develop a swagger.

Ultimately, The Kitchen is shallow and, okay, a little ridiculous, but it entertained me. No, it’s no Widows but I wouldn’t quite throw it down the drain.