When it comes to gangster films, female characters usually fall into one of two categories. If they have any sort of prominence within the narrative, they usually fall within the romantic or familial label: wife/girlfriend/mistress/love interest or the sister/mother/ daughter/grandmother. If they are not prominent within the narrative, they are a nameless and faceless background character. In The Kitchen, the women are front and center. It’s too bad that The Kitchen isn’t a good example of this change in the genre.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Andrea Berloff
Written By: Andrea Berloff (screenplay), Ming Doyle (comic book series) and Ollie Masters (comic book series)
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Brian d’Arcy James, Jeremy Bobb, James Badge Dale, Margo Martindale, and Domnhall Gleeson
In 1978, the Irish mob known as the Westies unofficially ran Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in Manhattan. Three of their members are arrested by the FBI and sent to jail. Jimmy Brennan and Kathy Brennan (Brian d’Arcy James and Melissa McCarthy) are the picture of a solid marriage with two growing children. Kevin O’ Carroll (James Badge Dale) is married to Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), but his mother Helen (Margo Martindale) is not exactly pleased that her son married an African-American woman. Rob Walsh (Jeremy Bobb) has been verbally and physically abusing his wife Claire (Elisabeth Moss) for years.
When their husbands are sentenced to three years in jail, Kathy, Ruby, and Claire are at a loss. Unable to support themselves, their only option is to step into their husband’s roles. But the men who run the mob are none too pleased that these women are not content to stay in the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood.
A Feminist Tale That is Timeless
Based on the graphic novel of the same name (which I have zero knowledge of), The Kitchen is at its core a female empowerment story. Frankly, this film is badly needed, in spite of its major flaws. Though there have been improvements in the number of speaking roles for women and performers of color, the numbers don’t lie. Male performers (who are also mostly Caucasian) still have the most screen time and the larger share of the narrative. Behind the camera is the same issue. White men are still the majority when it comes to directing. In this film, writer/director Andrea Berloff does her part to even the numbers out both in front of the camera and behind the camera.
Widows, it is Not
That being said, not even the strong feminist presence can make up for what is essentially a lackluster film. One of my favorite films last year was Widows. Based on the trailer, I was hoping that this film would be just as good. While on the surface, both films are similar, The Kitchen fails where Widows succeeds.
Though the core narrative of both films is very similar, Widows is an electrifying, intense and dramatic crime thriller with non-traditional female leads that keeps the audience on their toes until the end credits roll down the screen. The Kitchen does have some moments of dramatic tension, but those moments are few and far between.
Tiffany Haddish is a Damn Good Actress
Two years ago, Tiffany Haddish burst in the minds and hearts of audiences in the comedy Girls Trip. Since then, she has proven to be a gifted comedic actress. But drama is a different animal entirely. Many comedic actors have tried to switch gears and play a dramatic role, but few effectively make the jump from comedy to drama. I’m not the biggest fan of Haddish, but I was impressed with her character and the arc that she plays. Her character could have easily been a victim, both as a woman and a person of color in a world that respects neither. But Ruby is tough, smart and underestimated by the men around her.
A Waste of Good Talent
Melissa McCarthy is one of the funniest women on screen these days. Her scenes in Bridesmaids were the cherry on top of one of what I think is one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Elisabeth Moss has major drama cred, especially given her iconic roles in The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men. Tiffany Haddish may not have as long of a CV as her co-stars, but whatever it is that is required to make it in Hollywood, she has it and then some. These women are on the top of their professional game as performers and all three are mostly wasted in The Kitchen.
Domnhall Gleeson Plays What is Essentially a Female Role
If there is one good think about this film, it is its switching of traditional male and female roles. In this film, Domnhall Gleeson plays a role that in most gangster films, would be played by a woman. His character, as a companion and love interest, is helpful to the main characters. But his role is not as critical to the overall narrative as the lead female characters are. While I certainly appreciate this gender swap, it again cannot make up for the obvious issues with this film.
If I had to sum up this movie in one word, it would be disappointing. Upon watching the trailer, I was excited to see a film centered around three women who step into a man’s world and succeed on their own terms. However, there are too many problems with this film in total.
There are only a handful of films in which I dislike intensely and will not waste another moment of my time on. The Kitchen is one of these films.
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