The premise of The Kitchen, in which three mob wives fight to take over the business of their incarcerated husbands, could inspire very different films. It could be a girl power polemic that exploits the pleasures of seeing women succeed at a man’s game, or it could be a richer, more complex tale about good people who just happen to be women driven to do bad things. The rousing victories and frustrating defeats of The Kitchen come from its attempts to straddle these two versions of itself.
In 1978 Hell’s Kitchen, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss), and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) find themselves in desperate times when their husbands, players in the Irish mob, are sent upstate for various offenses. Unable to make ends meet with the modest stipend offered by their husbands’ bosses, they decide instead to muscle in on their territory. They begin with loan sharking, and eventually work their way up to homicide. It’s a far-fetched story idea that the screenplay, which writer-director Andrea Berloff adapted from a DC graphic novel, never quite works hard enough to construct. The women’s rise to power happens too quickly, and their socio-economic predicament—they have no ability to earn a living because, as wives, they were never encouraged to gain marketable skills—is rushed over.
It’s an awkward adaptation: Too often, Berloff struggles melding the film with the graphic novel, opting for an overly broad tone more befitting of the story’s original form. Most of the actors are doing subtle character work, as if they were in a naturalistic drama, but they are buried in cartoonish ’70s-inspired costumes, hair, and makeup.
The first half of the film feels choppy and unformed. Establishing scenes between our leading ladies and their husbands are reduced to short exchanges, later resulting in unearned payoffs. Ruby, in particular, is sorely underdeveloped—the conceit that she is a black woman living in an Irish neighborhood is certainly not enough to be considered character development. It feels like there may be a great three-hour cut of this movie somewhere, but someone in charge lost their nerve along the way.
It’s a testament to the power of the film’s performers that when the fireworks start to go off, they really bang. McCarthy nails yet another dramatic role as Kathy, following her performance in last year’s stellar Can You Ever Forgive Me?, burying her comic vulnerability at the start and then brandishing it to great effect as her character’s plans start to fall apart. Still, the star here is Moss, who blows through the film like a hurricane of righteous fury. Claire is the archetypal hothead of the group, but Moss’ portrayal of a soul overtaken with bloodlust is far more emotionally nuanced than we’ve seen before. Her tender romance with a psychopathic underling (a spectacular Domhnall Gleeson) provides a welcome soft spot in the film’s hardened surface.
A mediocre film is well served by ending on a high note, and The Kitchen is at its best in the final third, when the precarious partnership between our three anti-heroes is threatened both from outside and within. The platitudes fall away, the broad strokes get sharper, and the characters carry the film toward a surprisingly emotional climax. It may take a long time to get going, but when it does, The Kitchen sizzles.
The Kitchen opens Friday in theaters everywhere.