3/10 The Kitchen is a story about women who stage a hostile takeover of a traditional men’s space. It’s a pun! Get it? Because it’s, when that happens, the traditional response is to tell the woman to “get back in the kitchen,” but now “the kitchen” is the space they’re now in, and it’s the title of the movie, so they’re permanently in “the kitchen,” and it takes place in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen!
New York City, 1978- mob control is limited to Hell’s Kitchen, where it runs a protection/prostitution racket that doesn’t seem to keep anyone safe. When enforcers Jimmy Brennan (Brian d’Arcy James), Kevin O’Carroll (James Badge Dale) and Rob Walsh (Jeremy Bobb) are arrested and sent away for three years, the mob establishment tells their wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elizabeth Moss) that they will be taken care of and nothing will fundamentally change, but the money the mob provides is immediately short. With no other options, the women quickly and easily take over and improve mob operations.
Almost a year after Widows, a thriller about wives taking over for their professional criminal husbands with an all-star cast that rarely seems to be in the same room that was undermined by some questionable tonal decisions, Warner Bros. has released The Kitchen, essentially the same film with essentially the same problems. Established screenwriter Andrea Berloff, who was initially hired to adapt the script from an 2014 Vertigo Comics limited series, makes her directorial debut after impressing New Line Cinema with her subversive take on the material.
It’s one of those movies that feels palpably like it was directed by a woman, and a big part of what The Kitchen brings to the table is its gender dynamics. With women entering and dominating a traditionally male space – both the lead characters and mob matriarch Helen O’Carroll (Margo Martindale), Kevin’s mother and Ruby’s despising in-law – Berloff isolates and focuses on the differences their genders make on the many tropes The Kitchen deals in.
I’m saying this for the third time in four weeks, so I guess it’s not that uncommon, but it’s still refreshing to see movies about characters who don’t like each other. There’s three lead characters with three separate and traditionally feminine dreams they bring to the plot. Kathy Brennan, who is happy in her marriage, wants essentially to be the entire neighborhood’s godmother. Viewers stay mostly with her as she does non-violent legwork of setting up a humming criminal franchise. Ruby O’Carroll, a black woman openly resented by her Irish husband and in-laws, is much more focused on securing their power and sees threats to it from every direction. Her paranoia and secrecy leads her to target people Brennan sees as allies, which develops into the film’s primary conflict.
Claire Walsh, whose husband frequently beats her, is taken with the violence of her new role and avenges herself on the trio’s new enemies. Siloed in a little Bonnie and Clyde subplot, she strikes up a relationship with the group’s enforcer, Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), and eagerly learns the tools of the mob muscle trade.
Noticeably, the three women seem to continue enslaving girls and selling them for sex. I say “seem to” because this element of mob activity is never explored in any kind of detail either before or after they take over, it’s just casually shown to be part of the business both before and after. It’s a good concept, and addressing it directly would clarify what The Kitchen really thinks about girl power – are the prostitutes better-treated and safer under the wives’ rule, or are they still just as vulnerable and disposable as they seem? Do they stand for women, or for themselves? And if there is no difference, what does that really mean, given that Helen O’Carroll was the real decision-maker before the wives’ takeover? Exploring any of these questions would multiply The Kitchen’s thematic depth, but as-is, they hang awkwardly over the film, as if several afterthoughts that snuck in to the final cut.
Sadly, the strong gender dynamics and Berloff’s apparent vision don’t translate into a distinctive final product.
Watching The Kitchen, it feels like the kind of movie that would be unceremoniously dropped next to a half-dozen other movies in mid-August. It has no blockbuster bombast and certainly wasn’t advertised as one, and there’s no reason to think it would make headway as Oscarbate either. The movie doesn’t commit to being particularly dramatic or comedic, and there’s some major lighting issues – the movie is ugly, if appropriately so, and often hard to see. There’s almost no score other than a very expensive set list, which seems to have been deployed thoughtlessly in post-production instead of having sequences designed around its use. Most of the cast members don’t seem to know where they want to go with their varying degrees of Irish drawl.
It’s strange to see slapstick stars McCarthy and Haddish in dramatic roles opposite Moss, a respected TV thespian, and none of them do an outstanding job. McCarthy and Haddish at first seem to be overplaying particular elements, but as the story moves forward and their characters evolve, their acting decisions pay off in some interesting ways. Ruby O’Carroll’s arc seems smoother, with clarity that the viciousness was in her all along, and Kathy Brennan seems to resist her new role as a mob boss to the last. Moss isn’t necessarily better than her costars, but she’s clearly trying much harder.
While Widows, The Kitchen’s main comparable and a nearly identical film in many ways, sits at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and received significant awards attention, The Kitchen is stuck at 21% and made just $5.5 million in its opening weekend, easily the worst opening of McCarthy’s career. Widows made $4.2 million in just its first day. I’m not sure why most critics see these films so differently, but it’s clear that viewers were steered away from The Kitchen both by this discrepancy, a wide array of other options and the general difficulty of making it out to the movies in mid-August.
It’s generally a forgettable film, and it will be forgotten quite quickly.