Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are three mob wives living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s. When their husbands are arrested and sent to prison, they take matters into their own hands and run the family business for themselves.
The first half hour of The Kitchen is a cavalcade of literally every crime drama stereotype that you can imagine. Climb over that awkward hill of clichés and there is a pretty enjoyable movie to be seen. I worry many audiences will not make it that far before losing faith in director Andrea Berloff’s film, and honestly that is a shame.
What drives the film as a whole are the three central performances. Melissa McCarthy plays Kathy, a traditional sort of a mob wife who supports her criminal husband while shielding their children from the worst aspects of his illegal lifestyle. Tiffany Haddish plays Ruby, an African-American woman isolated from her own community and broadly reviled by the Irish mobsters into which she has married. Elisabeth Moss plays Claire, the youngest of the three: a pretty girl who naively married into an abusive relationship. The three react in different ways when they begin racketeering for themselves. Kathy seems to underestimate just how difficult challenging an overwhelmingly male industry is going to be. Claire revels in the freedom away from her violent husband. Ruby presents a more ominous response to her newfound power, and much of the resulting film is dedicated to her reacting to an environment that denies her on the grounds of gender and race. All three performances are exceptional; it is expected from a seasoned dramatic actor like Moss, but McCarthy and Haddish are both comedic performers who turn out to excel at drama as well.
Also impressive is Domnhall Gleeson, best known to audiences for his caddish turn as General Hux in the recent Disney Star Wars sequels. Here he plays Gabriel, a troubled Vietnam veteran and mob hitman. He performs layers of emotion, creating something with more depth and originality than Berloff’s script supplies. (That script is based on an original graphic novel by Ming Doyle and Ollie Masters.)
The Kitchen gets better as it goes, building in complexity and ambiguity as the three woman become increasingly morally compromised. Each of their choices comes to challenge our perception of them. At the film’s outset, it is easy to root for their rebellious act of taking control. As their decisions grow more dubious, and their husbands eventually return home, things grow more conflicted and their actions less admirable. It is an interesting presentation of female power in a male-dominated environment.
This is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it is an entertaining and dramatic one. It boasts strong performances which lift a slightly unambitious screenplay, and it shifts well between issues of gender and race. It is clear that the award shows are not going to come knocking, but at the same time it is a shame to see a decent crime drama be disregarded as widely as The Kitchen has been. If you are a fan of the cast or the genre, it is absolutely worth checking out; it is a solid three-star movie.