Fan favorites Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss do their best to cover for an awkward script that cannot quite decide if it’s a hardboiled crime thriller or a fun summer shoot-‘em-up movie. Written and directed by Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), The Kitchen has plenty of good ingredients, but its low drive and unwillingness to commit to any one trajectory ultimately weakens what could be a smart update of its several confused genres.
In Hell’s Kitchen in 1978, three members of the Irish mob are sent to prison by the FBI (including Common as Agent Gary Silvers), leaving their “war widows” to accept whatever scraps they get from the gang for the next three years while the men are locked up. Unsatisfied with this, Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish), and Claire (Moss) take over a neglected corner of the business, right out from under the nose of an Irish mob boss and his formidable mother (Margo Martindale), who also happens to be Ruby’s mother-in-law. They have a certain amount of success, thanks to a little help from Kathy’s cousins and one of Claire’s old flames, a psychopath named Gabriel (Domhnall Gleason). But the specter of their husbands’ return hangs over their heads while enemies on the outside lurk around every corner.
The performances from The Kitchen’s three stars are as great as you would expect, and the movie leans on them as well as heavy-hitters like Martindale and Gleason’s eerie, off-kilter killer Gabriel. But while the marketing for the film leans into a burn-it-to-the-ground women’s empowerment rage ethos, which might be enough to get people in the seats on a hot day, it’s not able to sustain 100 minutes of movie watching.
One of the most powerful elements of The Kitchen is its commentary on husbands and wives, the love and loyalty (or lack thereof) between partners. The inclusion of an Italian mafioso’s wife, though brief, is exponentially additive to the story. A surprising moment of tenderness between Ruby and her husband late in the movie is powerful as well. The Kitchen thus raises many intriguing elements—race, interpersonal issues among the women, what it is they’re really fighting for—that it never then truly explores. A stronger movie would have chosen one and prioritized it, instead of hinting at all of them.
Tonally, The Kitchen cannot quite decide if it’s as light as a The Heat and Ocean’s 8, or a black humor vehicle like Sugar & Spice or Shaun of the Dead. Instead the tone feels uncertain and macabre, almost accidental. Off-key jokes come at odd moments, like seconds after an attempted rape that was filmed with such emotional impact and gravitas that the audience in my screening collectively gasped as it was happening, only to laugh nervously seconds later at an apparent punchline.
On the whole, The Kitchen isn’t able to decide how brutal and morally bankrupt it thinks its heroines are or even what they’re fighting for. It’s not a movie that shies away from violence, although it is largely bloodless, often occurring just off-screen and diffused with an ill-advised joke. It is not, however, soundless. As the movie continues, the women develop varying degrees of ruthlessness, something The Kitchen makes note of but is uninterested in further developing, almost to the point of confusion. Do the others know how often the group’s heavy is murdering people, and how much she seems to enjoy it?
The most obvious comparison is to 2018’s brilliant (and sadly neglected by awards season) Widows, which depicts women who take over a criminal enterprise after their husbands are killed. Unlike Widows, The Kitchen is not a caper film, meaning it needs something else to propel its narrative forward. It never quite succeeds in coming up with a clear thesis for the women though, instead settling on short-term goals for the duration of the movie that make it feel a bit choppy, and leave the narrative dead in the water as the audience wonders why the movie needs to continue.
The Kitchen opts not to engage with any politics other than gender, even when staring them in the face. There’s an odd speech from McCarthy’s character about the neighborhood being the “birthright” of her neighbors, and the fact that the Irish are entitled to it and must defend it from outsiders. It’s undoubtedly authentic to the time period, and if you swap in different locations and broaden out to a more general understanding of whiteness, you can certainly find people who feel similarly now. But it’s tough to hear a white person talking about their entitlement to America as they violently push out others, including bending a group of Orthodox Jews to their will. This movie has racial politics whether it admits it or not, but it isn’t entirely willing to spend the time digging into characters who would be part of this mode of thinking, which is frankly the bedrock of organized crime that falls along ethnic lines.
The Kitchen would rather preserve its heroines for a 2019 women’s empowerment aesthetic, which becomes harder the more blatantly ethnocentric they become. The script weakens its look at Ruby’s reality as a black woman married into an Irish Catholic family in the late 1970s and underplays the dynamic between two FBI agents of color and Irish mobsters who beat them on sight when they’re stopped mid-robbery. Where Widows was steeped in issues of gender, race, and class at every level, The Kitchen trades in them whenever it’s convenient but tries to avoid them when they become less so.
The Kitchen planted intriguing seeds that are cut off by a couple of third act twists that prevent further exploration. Ultimately, while women’s rage is a potent source of renewable energy, banking on the wish fulfillment of the era of female anger isn’t enough to make a worthwhile film. If the premise of The Kitchen excited, check out Widows for something with more drive and heft.