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Review: The Kitchen Can’t Decide Between Extolling and Criticizing Mob Life

The film never meaningfully reckons with the complexity of the characters’ motivations and the consequences of their actions.

The Kitchen
Photo: Warner Bros.

Mob wives mostly get the short end of the stick in gangster films, either silently suffering or viewed as complicit in their husbands’ crimes for sharing their spoils. They also tend to be the recipients of whatever violence their husbands don’t get out of their systems in dealings with other men. These women are primary victims of the rigorously patriarchal world of organized crime. At the start of Andrea Berloff’s The Kitchen, however, the wives of three Irish mafia soldiers don’t even get the chance to enjoy the perks of mobster excess. When Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Kevin (James Badge Dale), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) are busted after committing a small-time robbery, their respective wives, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), are left in the lurch and beholden to the men’s crew, who don’t even pay them enough to cover their rent.

With their backs against the wall, the women decide to get into the mob business for themselves, going to the local shops paying protection money to their husbands’ bosses and offering to honor the agreements the men are too lazy to enforce. Soon, they’re receiving all the payments in town, and they quickly prove adept at maintaining order in the community. Their approach to organized crime shrewdly expands on introductory scenes that establish each character’s personality. The pragmatic Kathy makes for a natural ringleader, affable enough to put “clients” at ease but sharp enough to lay out a path of swift takeover of the local mafia enterprises. Ruby, who’s endured a lifetime of racist invective, is far more bullish, aware that she has to prove herself twice over to be taken seriously. And Claire, relentlessly abused by her husband, falls in love with the wrathful side of protection scams, taking to wetwork with relish as she finally gets to wield physical force against men.

The actresses spend much of the film’s first half exploring the contours of these broad character motivations. McCarthy, working in a subdued fashion that recalls her Can You Ever Forgive Me? turn, lets her comic chops slip out in moments of sardonic exasperation. (It almost counts as a twist that Kathy is the most self-controlled of the trio.) Haddish channels her chaotic intensity into a sort of caged-animal paranoia that reflects Ruby’s lifelong domestic and social harassment. Only Moss plays fully to form, mingling the doormat-turned-boss arc of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson with the serrated-edge instability of her performances for Alex Ross Perry. The Kitchen is anchored by Kathy’s calm and collected organization of the mob takeover, though it’s Claire’s increasing bloodlust that truly propels the film.

Claire’s zeal for getting back at the men of the world for stepping all over her is also the catalyst of the film’s thematic undoing. Even the most probing mob narrative struggles to balance its depiction of the allure of the lifestyle with criticism of its amorality, but the film oscillates so wildly between these two extremities it never settles on a consistent point of view. Claire’s turnaround, in which she stands up for herself and falls for an affectionate hitman, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), is initially a genre-appropriate form of empowerment, but as she becomes more trigger-happy with anyone who so much as looks at her the wrong way, The Kitchen never takes more than a few seconds to doubt the justifiability of her ruthlessness. No sooner does Claire, or one of the other women, take things too far than the film throws in another act of violence played for laughs, retreating from the less savory implications of the women perpetuating the same things that kept them oppressed for years.

In the end, The Kitchen’s inability to criticize its characters without soon falling back on a mild endorsement for their warped displays of empowerment only cheapens, in retrospect, the film’s initially rich sense of characterization. Even when greed gets the better of the women and they begin to scheme against each other to seize total control of their criminal empire, their conflict merely comes off as a narrative wrinkle to be ironed out by the film’s conclusion, in a reaffirmation of the bonds of partnership. Berloff proves an observant director of actors, capturing all of the roiling internal tension that McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss keep just below the surface of their characters’ cathartic turn to crime. But The Kitchen never meaningfully reckons with the complexity of the characters’ motivations and the consequences of their actions, avoiding the moral difficulty of identifying the point at which the women’s violence tips over from being justifiable to being self-justifying.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Margo Martindale, Common, Bill Camp Director: Andrea Berloff Screenwriter: Andrea Berloff Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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