The Kitchen is based on a relatively obscure DC/Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. It's pretty much the opposite of everything we've come to expect from a comic book movie. There are no superheroes, no clear cut good guys or villains, just a lot of people with varying degrees of moral corruption. Although the picture isn't totally successful, the ambition on display is admirable and appealing.
The story takes place in Hell's Kitchen during the 1970s. Three Irish mobsters have gone to jail. Their wives – Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) – find themselves less-than-satisfactorily cared for financially by the “family” afterward. To rectify this, they decide to take over their husbands' duties, collecting protection money from businesses and gradually working up from there. The first section of The Kitchen shows how they decide to do this, the second shows their operation growing, and the third deals with what happens when their men are released.
That final third is the most compelling because it gets into gender-related themes. The males are seriously insecure that their wives have been able to do their jobs for them. In fact, the women have done it better, making ambitious advances and working to take care of the people in the community. The Kitchen is a female-empowerment tale set in a world where everyone is a little crooked, which sets it apart in an intriguing way.
Some storytelling issues plague the film, directed by Andrea Berloff (screenwriter of Straight Outta Compton). I don't know whether the studio mandated cuts or whether it was an intentional directorial choice, but a few of the scenes are very short, comprised of only three or four lines of dialogue. For that reason, the movie feels slightly disjointed at times. It occasionally takes a minute to figure out what's going on as one scene abruptly transitions into another. You also can't help but feel that some scenes end right before they really start to get good.
Beyond that flaw, The Kitchen offers real pleasures, starting with the performances. Melissa McCarthy proves again, after last year's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, that she's just as skilled at drama as she is at comedy. The actress makes Kathy the most grounded of the women. She wants to help the community (albeit through illegal activity) and provide for her children. That feels authentic in McCarthy's hands. Tiffany Haddish also does fine work. More could have been done with it, but the movie addresses how hard it is for Ruby, a black woman, to be accepted in a world dominated by white Irish men. Haddish gets across the trait that Ruby plows through every roadblock through sheer determination.
The best performance comes from Elisabeth Moss, who continues to establish herself as one of the most important actors around. Claire is an abused wife, and Moss gets a powerhouse scene where she declares to her friends that she's not going to let anyone hurt her ever again. From there, the character morphs into someone whose anger is channeled into a certain cold ruthlessness. We empathize with her, even when she's revealing a dark, violent side. Moss really brings out all Claire's complexities.
The Kitchen additionally has numerous plot developments that allow for interesting interactions between the characters. Complications arise that they have to find a way to deal with. Seeing how the women try to solve one problem only to see another pop up provides sufficient drama to help the movie partially coast over its choppiness.
For wherever the film falters, it at least gives us three strong performances and a subversive, slyly funny feminist message that says women can do anything as well as men, including organized crime.
out of four
The Kitchen is rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.