Allow me second to wipe this clown makeup off. Your boy thought ‘The Kitchen’ was going to be 2019’s Widows. Why the high expectations? Maybe its because it was adapted from a DC Vertigo comic. Or maybe it was just the cast which included three exciting actresses; Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy, who I expected to bring varying degrees of excellence to the table. ‘The Kitchen’ is also a 1970s New York crime flick so what could go wrong? Everything, apparently.
The basic plot of ‘The Kitchen’ sees the wives of street-level gangsters take over from their jailed better halves to support themselves. The incarcerations birth different sentiments from the wives. For Moss’ Claire, a victim of harrowing domestic abuse, she gets a taste of freedom for the first time in a decade. Haddish’s Ruby eyes the prospect of some upward mobility given her standing as a black woman in a racist Irish-American commune. For McCarthy’s Kathy, whose desperation spark the plot into motion, it’s primarily about survival after the mob gives her peanuts to live on.
As different as their motivations are initially, they all converge on the street called power. The metatext is interesting in that these leads have been given the keys to a gangster film in a male-dominated genre and industry. And our girls are game for the challenges the writer/director Andrea Berloff throws their way, never cheating the audiences desire for energy, charisma and pathos. The only problem is ‘The Kitchen’s’ feel for storytelling and sense of character are as intricate as ludo dice; grossly underserving the acting talent.
The women’s route to power lacks some of that process and minutia I love in crime cinema. They worm their way around the sexist gatekeepers of this world to offer better protection deals to neighborhood businesses as a start. This graduates to influence in major contractor projects and before we know it, the women, growing in their power, are confidently negotiating turf with the mafia in Brooklyn. Alongside the surface gangster politicking, which is sprinkled with some tension, a lot of bodies are dropped with the help of Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel, a psychotic Vietnam War vet who happens to be Claire’s prince charming.
The women stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back. The central question becomes how much they start to resemble the men whose shadows blinded their existence. There are some interesting ideas at play here with how the wives almost become mutated (of sorts) versions of their husbands. Ruby toes the line of her man’s duplicitous nature, the violently abused Claire develops a taste for blood and Kathy, who was a dutiful wife, is hailed for her devotion to the community and her family no matter the cost.
Berloff has a read on what’s interesting about these women. She even exhibits some curiosity about their transformational ascent in the criminal world. She, however, pays little heed to the moral dilemma and toll of violence these women should perhaps be wrestling with. We are supposed to root for them and jump on the empowerment bandwagon as irony manifests in them taking over Hell’s Kitchen.
Though the film compensates for a lack of nuance with truly dumb twists in a film that favours shocking plot points over character dissection, I will admit there was one moment I found compelling, where Ruby, at her most vulnerable, seeks refuge at her mother’s place. Ruby’s ma reminds her daughter about how she beat out the softness and innocence from her as she receives some fruits from the crime world. This textured moment made showed ‘The Kitchen’ was capable of some much more than the unbearable stasis and perfunctory salutes to genre conventions on display.
It doesn’t help that the film lacks any visual flair or distinct style, save for the numerous scenes on sidewalks. The dialogue is exposition-heavy and two-dimensional motivations morph actors’ earnestness into an unfunny and forgettable comedy routine. But hey, there is perhaps the best use of a rat in here since ‘The Departed‘ so I guess that’s something.