Review: The Kitchen (2019)

The Kitchen (2019)

Directed by: Andrea Berloff | 102 minutes | action, crime | Actors: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Jeremy Bobb, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Common, EJ Bonilla, Myk Watford, Wayne Duvall, Pamela Dunlap, John Sharian

For a few years now, a feminist wave has been sweeping through Hollywood. Actresses, directors and screenwriters are increasingly making their voices heard and fighting for equal rights. They not only want to be paid the same as their male colleagues, but also want the same opportunities. There are still significantly fewer women than men who direct or write films, and an even smaller proportion of them receive the recognition they deserve. Actresses often receive less pay than their male counterparts and also receive less text; even in Disney movies that revolve around a princess, the male figures around her often have more text. And then there’s the ageism that is much more prevalent among women than men (while there are so many fantastic actresses aged fifty or older!). Men dominate the movie world. No wonder a generation of women, whether or not in the slipstream of the #MeToo movement, has risen to take matters into their own hands. Suddenly there was ‘Ghostbusters’ (2016), a remake of the 1984 classic but with four women in the roles of ghost hunters. Another example: ‘Ocean’s Eight’ (2018), with a parade of female scammers and link michelen that haunted Danny Ocean’s mind. Women in roles that are usually only played by men: ‘The Kitchen’ (2019) also fits perfectly into that pattern. Three wives of mobsters do the honors when their husbands are sent to prison. The director is also a woman: Andrea Berloff, who caused a furore as the screenwriter of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015), which even earned an Oscar nomination, makes her directorial debut here.

In the 1970s, New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was the domain of Irish immigrants, simple workers who struggle to make ends meet. Criminals are in charge. Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are married to three of those Irish mobsters. They accept the fact that their husbands are in charge: Kathy does what she is asked to do, takes care of the children and plays the perfect housewife; Ruby may be married to one of the most prominent mobsters in The Kitchen, but she’s still seen as an outsider. And Claire allows herself to be used daily by her husband as a punching bag; because of his aggression she has even lost her unborn child. One evening, the three men are arrested by the FBI during a robbery. They run in the bin for a longer period of time. While the women expect that the crime organization around Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law Helen O’Carroll (Margo Martindale) will take care of them, the first envelopes turn out to have very little content. So the women decide to take matters into their own hands: they visit the entrepreneurs in The Kitchen with some tough guys to offer them protection in exchange for a financial contribution. Miraculously, their new role turns out to fit the ladies like a glove and it isn’t long before they take over the lead of the organization from Little Jackie.

At about the same time as ‘The Kitchen’, ‘Widows’ (2019) by Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen also appeared in the cinemas. And whether you like it or not, making a comparison is inevitable. Although the films have a similar theme – also in ‘Widows’ a group of wives takes over the criminal activities of their gangster lovers – they could hardly have been more different in execution. Where McQueen’s film excels in layered characters, an ingenious and suspenseful plot and an impressive sketch of the tumultuous life on the streets of Chicago, the wafer-thin, episodic ‘The Kitchen’ stands out thinly. The screenplay, also by Berloff, is based on a 2015 DC Vertigo comic series, which probably explains the lack of depth. This is especially noticeable when things are mentioned that could (or perhaps should) have generated that depth: oppression of women, abuse, racism. But ‘The Kitchen’ only skims past it and does nothing further with this theme. Sin! It’s also a shame that the three talented protagonists get so little to do. Moss, in particular, has so much more to offer: here she transforms from crippled wallflower into a fearless killer in no time at all, who, thanks to returned hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), masters the intricacies of dismembering a corpse under the get a knee. The gushing romance that develops between the two has something comical and something out of place at the same time. McCarthy showed with her stunning playing in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ (2018) to be much more than a comedienne and here is the one whose actions we can most understand. Haddish is more convincing in comedic roles and comes across as forced here and there. For the other actors, including Bill Camp as mob boss Coretti, there is barely room to shine in their cardboard roles. A small exception is Martindale as the villainous, foul-mouthed matriarch who is the only woman who is respected in the male-dominated criminal organization.

It’s a shame about the scenario and the characters, but ‘The Kitchen’ fortunately manages a number of things nicely. For example, the seventies look slick in this film and McCarthy, Haddish and Moss can parade around in fantastic clothes that fit perfectly into the era. The music also pops out, including Etta James (‘It’s a Man’s World’, not a subtle message right at the beginning of the film, but that sets the tone right away), Heart, Fleetwood Mac and Kansas. It’s a shame the plot isn’t more subtle, the characters aren’t more layered, and the action isn’t more exciting. That makes ‘The Kitchen’ somewhat easygoing and colorless, although Berloff’s directorial debut is nevertheless entertaining. However, if you want to see an exciting, captivating and impressive film about women who follow in the footsteps of their criminal husbands, a film that will stay with you for a while, then you should watch ‘Widows’. That is really a nice example of girl power!

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