Film Review: ‘The Kitchen’ Is an Imperfectly Entertaining Gangster Flick

Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss are a force in Andrea Berloff's directorial debut.

The Irish mob is under new leadership in Andrea Berloff‘s new gangster flick, “The Kitchen.”

Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss star as Kathy, Ruby, and Claire. In the Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen circa 1978, these mob wives find themselves in a desperate situation when their husbands are carted off to serve three year prison sentences after getting nabbed by the FBI. Under the supposed care of local boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford), Kathy, Ruby and Claire know they are on the verge of losing everything. Together, they set out to make big changes in The Kitchen.

Academy Award-nominated writer Andrea Berloff moves into the director’s chair for her first feature. She also adapted the script from the DC Vertigo comic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. Berloff does not shy away from the gritty violence of the lawless neighborhood. Taking inspiration more from Coppola than Scorsese, her mob movie is methodical in its escalation of tension between one faction and another. As one threat is dispatched another emerges, and although the pacing sometimes feels off, there is always a sense of order instead of chaos.

There are a few issues with character development and pacing, particularly in the cases of McCarthy’s Kathy and Haddish’s Ruby. Although there’s enough understanding about the ladies and their home situations to follow the narrative, questions still linger. How, for instance, did a nice girl from Harlem ever find herself hitched to a mid-level Irish gangster on the other end of Manhattan?

The opening sequences feel rushed. As the leading ladies and their husbands are introduced, the husbands are arrested and sent to prison all within mere minutes. Suddenly, it’s two or three months later and there isn’t enough money coming in. Kathy, Ruby and Claire are forced to go to Little Jackie to ask for help. Berloff seems in a hurry to get to the part where the ladies run the show, and therefore she sacrifices some of the steps that would help the transition feel natural. The story makes perfect sense and their motivations are in tact, but winning over key members of a crime family is more believable when some time is spent showing how that happens.

Even with these shortcoming, Berloff makes some choices in her script and directing that work very well. This is New York in the 1970s and as Kathy points out, marriage stopped each of them from getting an education or developing job skills in the work force. Of the three, Kathy is the only one with children. None of them have any marketable skills or the confidence and knowledge to go out and get a job.

Berloff wisely focuses the antagonism away from their lack of ability and more on their roles in their families and the archetypal Mob Family. The conversation isn’t centered on whether they can or can’t build a business and connections. When you tell someone they can’t do something, they will inevitably set out to prove you wrong. It’s quite another thing to tell them they shouldn’t. That is how Little Jackie and others try to hold the women back. They should leave this work to the men. They shouldn’t get involved in this dirty business. This thematic detail is an important distinction and sets up intriguing power dynamics between the women and the men around them.

Of the three leads, Elisabeth Moss gives the strongest and most interesting performance. Claire is a battered wife who easily could have turned into a trope. Instead, she embraces her newfound sense of agency and takes it in an unexpected direction that is disturbingly cathartic. Moss excels at playing with the different and shifting facets of Claire’s personality.

Melissa McCarthy earned her second Oscar nomination last year with the biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Her move toward more serious roles has been an exciting and welcome one. For Tiffany Haddish, though, “The Kitchen” marks the first time most audiences have seen her in a dramatic role. It’s a good move for her, too. But where Moss embraces Claire’s trauma and reveals a woman who is tired of being a victim, McCarthy and Haddish are less successful. Most of their scenes are melodramatic. They deliver their dialogue as if they aren’t sure which tone they are supposed to choose. Considering the amount of talent they possess, this feels like a mistake of direction rather than contrived performances.

Domhnall Gleeson is surprising as Gabriel O’Malley, a Vietnam Vet and mob enforcer who returns to the city after several years away. Gabriel is as layered as Claire, perfectly comfortable with killing and disposing of bodies. But he also has a soft side that is oddly endearing.

There are other memorable supporting performances too with Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb playing the incarcerated husbands. Bill Camp is well-suited as Brooklyn-based Italian mafia boss Alfonso Coretti. Annabella Sciorra makes a very brief appearance as his wife. If there is ever a sequel to “The Kitchen,” one can only hope Maria Coretti plays a major role. McCarthy shares some quaity scenes with Wayne Duvall, who plays her father. Margo Martindale takes on the role of Ruby’s sour-faced, disapproving mother-in-law.

The crafts team is brimming with skill. Maryse Alberti‘s cinematography pairs well with production design from Shane Valentino. They paint a picture of Hell’s Kitchen in the years when crime rates soared. Together, they masterfully establish a balance between showing the ugly reality and reminding the viewer that this is still home for these characters we care about. Adding beautiful costume designs from Sarah Edwards and a killer 70s soundtrack, this late season release has a lot to enjoy.

“The Kitchen” will inevitably be judged for all the things it isn’t, much more than for what it is. This is not polished or sleek, and it skips over a few opportunities to comment more directly on issues of misogyny and race. On the other hand, it is an entertaining tale of women who refuse to be pushed aside or subjected to the whims of men. That it is set in a genre that is also male-dominated makes it exactly the type of film we need more of in 2019.

“The Kitchen” is distributed by Warner Bros. and is now playing.

GRADE: (★★★)

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