Mob-wife revenge movie The Kitchen opens with an overhead shot of neon-lit New York City, set to the tune of the Etta James classic “It’s a Man’s Man’s World.” That on-the-nose music cue is a good indicator of the level of subtlety to be found in the rest of the film, where the soundtrack helpfully explains a story that’s not hard to follow anyway.
The opening riffs of Heart’s “Barracuda” a bit later feel inevitable, another skating-rink-DJ-quality mic drop. It’s a shame a Minneapolis psychedelic rock group already took the name Lazy Scorsese. It’s apt here. The Kitchen wants to play in Goodfellas territory without any of the specificity and texture that makes for a classic. It’s the kind of movie where a pushy guy named Little Jackie is introduced and that’s all you really need to know about him, since other, better gangster movies have laid the groundwork. And of course, there’s the pro forma side story about the two detectives investigating the case, which may rank as the most tiresome, vestigial brand of subplot in all of genre filmmaking.
The hook here is that when the three Irish enforcers who run Hell’s Kitchen circa 1978 get busted, their wives (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss) decide to take over the territory. McCarthy’s Kathy is a maternalistic local union booster who wants to protect her home, while Moss’ character Claire and Haddish’s Ruby are looking to escape from their temporarily incarcerated abusive partners.
All three leads are intriguing, but they walk through a paint-by-numbers underworld where it’s implausibly easy to seize control of a criminal enterprise. Mostly they just refuse to leave, or in one case help get a woman into cosmetology school, and a gaggle of villainous second-tier New York character actors bumblingly oblige. These flimsy antagonists are part of the problem; not until the great Bill Camp shows up as a Brooklyn boss does McCarthy’s squad find a worthy adversary.
Andrea Berloff’s directorial debut approaches exploitation-movie material with studio-friendly sheen that renders it not morally murky, just oblivious. Late in the film, Kathy’s father shows up to question her ethics—a little too late in a movie that plays the shooting death of an elderly orthodox Jewish businessman as a moment of gender-flipped empowerment.
In this regard—in almost all regards, really—The Kitchen suffers tremendously in comparison to last year’s thorny, unflinching Widows, which used a similar premise to great effect thanks to the brilliant combination of director Steve McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn. Widows is somehow both slicker and grittier, not to mention more lived-in and thoughtful.
The best reason to see The Kitchen is to get a reminder that Melissa McCarthy can do anything. Comedy, of course, but every time she’s freed from needing a laugh she demonstrates tremendous range. The leading ladies are all great, though Haddish has a little trouble holding her own with McCarthy, Moss, and powerhouse Margo Martindale as Ruby’s mafia matron mother-in-law. (Who wouldn’t?) Still, she’s a commanding presence. It’s a shame The Kitchen didn’t serve these actresses something better.
Director: Andrea Berloff
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, Domhnall Gleeson
Theater: Area theaters, now playing