Women don’t often get much of a role in mob movies, although there have been exceptions like Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston in “Prizzi’s Honor” and Gena Rowlands in “Gloria.” Otherwise, they’re usually the moll — the girlfriend or spouse along for the ride while not engaging in any outright criminal activity. In “The Kitchen,” once the husbands are out of the way, it’s the ladies who take over and break bad. If the plot sounds similar to last year’s “Widows,” that’s because filmmakers have been scrambling to come up with female-empowerment stories like this for the last couple of years.
With Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish in leading roles, I expected a broad (if you’ll pardon the expression) comedy, but “The Kitchen” isn’t wild or wacky. It’s a drama set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, circa 1978, about three wives (Elisabeth Moss is the third) whose mob-guy husbands get sent to jail after being caught robbing a bodega. Left to fend for themselves with little assistance from the Irish mob boss, Little Jackie, the women decide to get tough and take over some of his protection rackets.
McCarthy proved her dramatic chops last year in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, which I named one of the Best Movies Of 2018 (full review here). Moss has a resume full of serious stuff, and Haddish — whose career has been moving full speed since “Girls Trip” two years ago — subdues her funny side to play it straight, too. All three are in fine form as their characters get tougher and embrace their new positions.
There’s a supporting cast of great character actors, too: Domhnall Gleason, Bill Camp, Brian D’Arcy James, Common, and Margo Martindale. Unfortunately, the latter two aren’t given much to do, but it is nice to see Annabella Sciorra back on screen as she continues her comeback from the exile she was stuck in thanks to the despicable Harvey Weinstein.
Watching it, I thought “The Kitchen” might be based on a true story, but it turns out to be from a comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, as adapted by Andrea Berloff, who was Oscar-nominated for her screenplay for “Straight Outta Compton,” here making her directorial debut.
Every time a director fills a soundtrack with classic, instantly-recognizable songs instead of using an original music score they should owe a royalty to Martin Scorsese, who mastered that form and has been copied ad nauseam through the decades. Berloff is the latest filmmaker to tread this well-worn path, relying on Etta James singing James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World,” The Highwomen covering Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” and Melanie singing Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to set the mood in several scenes (plus other songs right off a 1970s album-oriented-rock radio station’s playlist by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kansas, Heart, and Foghat).
“The Kitchen” gets a little predictable in its last third, and it’s never clear why these three women had any kind of relationship before the boys were tossed in the slammer. Yet I was still invested in what they did and how they did it, particularly Moss, whose character takes to the grisly, murderous business much more easily than the others. And I was happy not to see McCarthy and Haddish bouncing off the walls in desperate attempts to make us laugh.
I give it a 6 out of 10.