“The Kitchen,” Reviewed: An Engrossing Mob-Wife Drama That’s Relegated to a Table Read
The financial crisis and crumbling morale of New York City in the late seventies is the backdrop to “The Kitchen,” a drama about three mob wives who, when their husbands are imprisoned, support themselves with gangster endeavors of their own. For all the movie’s dangerous conflict and physical violence, and despite the dramatic reconstruction of New York period settings and styles, the movie plays like a feature-length table read. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just an unusual one—it places particular pressure on the screenwriting and the actors’ line readings. “The Kitchen” is written and directed by Andrea Berloff, whose script is energetically crammed with incidents and teeming with characters frankly and unambiguously stating their motives and efficiently defining their identities and functions—and the actors deliver that text with sharp-edged assertiveness. The effect is both piquantly engaging and dishearteningly synthetic, like a well-turned sound effect—one simulating the thud of a screenplay dropped on a desk.
The action begins in January, 1978, in Hell’s Kitchen, on the far West Side of Manhattan, where the longtime hegemony of Irish immigrants—and their criminal gangs—is waning. Three Irish wiseguys, looking to go on their own as loan sharks, need cash to get started. They rob a local liquor store and pummel two F.B.I. agents (played by Common and E. J. Bonilla) who confront them—but police backups swoop in and arrest the trio. They’re tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years in prison. Their wives, without means of support, get envelopes of cash from the gang’s leader, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), but the funds are scant, so they decide to take matters into their own hands.
The women are played by Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy, and Elisabeth Moss. Their characters are united by a common cause, but their motives diverge. Claire (Moss), physically brutalized by her husband (Jeremy Bobb), learns to defend herself—taught by a tenderhearted psychopath named Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). Ruby (Haddish) escapes from her domineering mother-in-law, Helen (Margo Martindale), a gangland mainstay whose racist abuse she has silently endured. Kathy (McCarthy), a fast thinker long subordinate to her lunkhead husband (Brian d’Arcy James), flourishes emotionally behind a gun, while seeking redemption for her father (Wayne Duvall), an underemployed construction worker.
A mark of the script’s sharpness is found in the incidentals behind the women’s criminal swerve, which lend a rather blatant dramatic logic to their decision and undergird it with an idiosyncratic ideological anchor. When the women confront Jackie, in front of his underlings, to request higher payouts, he claims that the gang’s collections, from the neighborhood-protection racket—i.e., the shakedown of businesses—are down. Soon thereafter, the women poke around the neighborhood and discover that businesses are holding out on the gang because it’s not actually delivering much in the way of protection. One elderly shopkeeper complains that he was robbed of a day’s take by a criminal from “outside the neighborhood”; the storefront of another is plagued with graffiti. Kathy is certain that she, Ruby, and Claire can “do better,” because “people have problems,” which the women can solve. They become, in effect, Robin Hoodlums who figure that they can do well for themselves by doing good for others.
A quick montage shows what kind of protection the women provide; it ranges from harassing the homeless to shooting a pimp (whose business, it’s suggested, they take over), and includes paying off an official to grant an ineligible applicant a cosmetologist’s license. And that’s only the start of the women’s community service. Their most important contributions involve their connection with labor. They strong-arm a nearby Hasidic builder (with the threat of murder) into hiring union contractors from the neighborhood, and also forge an alliance with a Brooklyn Mafia kingpin (Bill Camp) through their power to deliver jobs at a major new construction project, the Javits Center (a scene featuring a playful jab at an unnamed Donald Trump).
For all the mayhem the women spread (even as far as the raw realm of West Forty-second Street), their activities are presented in a beatifically populist light, a grassroots corrective to the vacuum of authority that rendered the streets filthy and violent. Gangland violence is presented as the egalitarian leveller in a system that’s rigged against the poor, women, and people of color, rather than as a part of the rigging. Whereas the first two “Godfather” movies depicted gangsterism as an element of big business and high-level politics, “The Kitchen” suggests that—regardless of, or because of, the rampant corruption engendered by the mob—gangsterism is essentially capitalism’s version of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The women at first rely on the muscle of hired men—until other men frighten these hired hands off, and the women must learn to exact violence themselves. Claire, having endured physical abuse at the hands of her husband, takes to the role of aggressor with particular enthusiasm. After Gabriel rescues her from an attack, she puts herself under his tutelage, telling him, “I don’t want you to do it—I want you to teach me how to do it." Yet there’s little shown of the women’s explicit practice and training, as there is in “Widows”; there’s also no overt connection between the gangs and local politics, as there was in that earlier film. “The Kitchen” also waves away the street-level significance of rampant police corruption—of which the gangs over all, and the three women in particular, are both instigators and beneficiaries.
“The Kitchen” ’s tangled working-class politics are matched by a suddenly awakened practical feminism, which is expressed in the same sincere and heartfelt one-liners with which the women state their motives and goals; the authenticity of the emotion is rivalled by its slogan-like blazoning. There’s one comedic moment, when an Italian mobster’s wife (Annabella Sciorra), meeting the three “Irish girls” (which includes Ruby), gives them a virtual fist bump by dropping the name of Gloria Steinem. Even more notably, as the trio of protagonists, the movie’s backstory proves to be dominated by mothers. Ruby’s macabre, profane, manipulative, racist mother-in-law is a major insider with the criminal gang that the women are battling. Ruby’s mother (Sharon Washington), though no gangster, is a tough customer in the domestic realm, whose harsh child-rearing methods, she declares, made Ruby who she is. At a kitchen-table reunion, she tells a story about Ruby’s empathetic childhood ways, explaining, “I had to beat that soft shit out of you, and this”—a roll of money that Ruby has just handed her—“is what I beat you for.”
What’s strongest in “The Kitchen” is the high-stakes confrontations—in effect, dialogue scenes—in which threats of violence infuse business dealings with an extraordinary tension, and in which the women’s intrepid intelligence comes to the fore. The handful of action scenes, for all their mortal dangers, come and go with an expository brevity and an elusive, abstracted physicality to match. (There’s one dramatic visual trope, though—a gunshot fired by an unseen shooter—which Berloff depicts with an instantaneous shock that tinges rue with glee, or vice versa, and which hints at the more stylishly imaginative film that this might have been.)
It’s noteworthy that two of the three lead roles are played by scintillating comic actors, Haddish and McCarthy, who here are rendered grimly dramatic. Unsurprisingly, they’re brilliant, infusing their performances with a live-wire presence and a volatile energy. They join a long-standing tradition of funny people delivering performances of fierce dramatic power, from Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet” and Judy Holliday in “The Marrying Kind” to Richard Pryor in “Blue Collar.” But, in “The Kitchen,” with only a few brief exceptions, Haddish and McCarthy’s strong and assertive performances are relegated to line readings, which would be almost as potent if delivered in front of a green screen. “The Kitchen” is full of incident; though its complex yarns unspool in a narrative middle ground without stylistic flair or psychological depth, they’re nonetheless engrossing. Its big idea, though vague, is at least a fascinating curiosity. But with its jumble of clichés, its blatant word-bubble declarations, and its hectically rushed impracticalities, the movie—which is based on a comic-book series—invites an air of antic exaggeration and revved-up stylization. It hints frustratingly, throughout, at a comedic impulse that the direction of its actors suppresses.