Late in the new crime drama The Kitchen, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), one of the three wives who start their own gang in 1970s New York City after their wiseguy husbands are sent to prison, reflects on her transformation from homemaker to mob boss. Growing up, she recalls, she was taught to thank people for the stingiest of kindnesses. At a certain point, though, she grew weary of constantly expressing gratitude, of always reminding herself and others of her indebtedness. Now, people thank her. She doesn’t just feel unburdened, but, in contrast to most women, safe. It’s an aspirational claim, and also a dubious one, coming from a character who recently lost a close associate to a hitjob and just days ago learned of a confidant’s contract on herself.
I felt resentful of my own feelings of gratitude while watching The Kitchen, a joyless and exhausting movie that squanders the talents of a dream trio: McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss. The Kitchen’s existence alone speaks to Hollywood’s movement toward greater female representation both on- and off-screen. Written and directed by Andrea Berloff (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Straight Outta Compton), the film puts women at the center of one of the cinema’s manliest genres (the mob drama), looks askance at patriarchal entitlement, and explicitly appeals to female solidarity approximately 7,000 times in two hours. (One admirer applauds the female gangsters for being “all Gloria Steinem and shit.”) That such a tale could get made without the involvement of an established auteur or some bankable intellectual property (the comic book from which it was adapted is not particularly well-known) suggests that, as long as a few movie stars are there to sweeten the deal, women’s empowerment is now considered enough of a selling point that even mediocre feminism-flavored projects can get greenlighted. Progress seldom feels as good as it should.
While it certainly is forward-looking to portray women as criminals and wrongdoers, just as we are in real life, it’s a tougher needle to thread to say that being a criminal is in itself empowering, as The Kitchen implies. In one scene, Kathy, Ruby (Haddish), and Claire (Moss) have a pimp fatally shot on the street in the middle of the day, presumably so they can take over his operation. (Hooray for female entrepreneurship!) Ruby also taunts Claire for the domestic violence the latter endured from her husband—“Besides getting hit, what other skills you got?”—in a line that muddles hard-nosed toughness with plain old misogyny. The costumes (by Sarah Edwards) and production design (by Shane Valentino) wonderfully evoke the trash-strewn urban apocalypse of late-’70s Manhattan—these streets look like they’ll never stop stinking. But the eventual scuffles between the women’s Irish American mob and its neighbors to the north (Jewish Orthodox jewelers in midtown) and across the river (the Italian American Mafia in Brooklyn) feel alternately grotesque and cartoonish. There’s no shortage of blood—or ethnic caricatures.
The Kitchen manages to avoid the cheap moralizing so common to mob movies, but the twists and turns feel more like contrivances concocted to keep the film humming toward its destination than developments that come naturally from the characters. (Given the surfeit of plot, it’s possible The Kitchen would’ve worked better as a miniseries on television, where shows like Claws and Good Girls offer their female gangsters the space to negotiate their desire for power and wealth with their hesitations and responsibilities.) McCarthy’s Kathy, the sole mother among the three women, seems to give precious little consideration to how a life of crime might impact her children, and a climactic decision makes her even harder to empathize with. Ruby and Claire, who both put up with much meaner husbands than Kathy’s, prove much less cautious than their already imprudent business partner. Ruby views her rise in the criminal ranks as an opportunity to challenge her mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), a mob doyenne who knows how to coddle the male egos around her at the expense of the women’s well-being. (Ruby’s backstory, as a black woman who marries into the Irish American mob, also feels woefully undeveloped.) Claire, meanwhile, spins out—and off—into a grisly movie of her own, with a new mentor-lover in the expressionless and paler-than-yogurt Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson, who quietly steals the movie with his hilarious deadpan blankness, which, who knew that was a thing).
Tone-wise, Moss and Gleeson may well be on a different planet from the other women, but the combination of her chilling sadism and his intense inertness adds a live-wire element to the proceedings. Their cute-gross love story, which includes bonding over breaking down body parts, constitutes the film’s only moving storyline. Meanwhile, McCarthy, Haddish, and even the usually reliable Martindale strangely flounder in key scenes, their wavering accents more memorable than their lines. The Kitchen also lacks the stylishness and subversive sense of camp that director Steve McQueen brought to the similarly themed Widows, or the girls-night-out fun that a different dream team of actresses brought to playing another band of criminals in Ocean’s 8. Women can be just as vicious as men, asserts The Kitchen—making an argument few would contest and no one asked for.