Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish can't lift this average mob drama.
Women can do anything, except remember that straightforward fact without a film popping up to remind us. That's what Hollywood seems to keep telling us — and while it's refreshing to see the industry so eager to finally give female protagonists their due, the rush to support the #MeToo and Time's Up movements (and just work towards the kind of equality that should be a given) comes with a few significant caveats. Pushing ladies to the fore either in front of and behind the lens doesn't automatically make a movie a winner, sadly. Weaving empowerment into a narrative doesn't either. Indeed, the recent cinema slate has offered up plenty of average and underdone examples of all the above, including Ocean's 8 and Captain Marvel. They're pictures with great stars, and with their hearts in the right spot, and yet they remain content to simply pay lip service to the idea they claim to champion. Yes, ladies, you can rob a high-profile gala while looking fabulous. You can be a kick-ass hero who saves the world to 90s tunes, too. But when gender-swapped flicks barely bother to interrogate what it actually means to be a woman in a man's world, they rarely rise above generic levels.
In The Kitchen's case, a tale about three women who become mob bosses when their Irish gangster husbands get locked up really doesn't appear to aim any higher. There's a winning cast and intriguing concept at the centre of this 70s-set film, but it shows its true colours in one mid-movie interaction — one that deserves groans rather than the fist-pumps it so desperately covets. Having worked hard to establish themselves as Hell's Kitchen's new kingpins, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) are summoned to meet with the Italian mafioso over in Brooklyn. When the trio leaves their tête-à-tête with the family head (Bill Camp), they're given a few words of encouragement by his wife (Annabella Sciorra), who praises them for being "all Gloria Steinem and shit". Sure, The Kitchen is adapted from a comic book series, however cartoonishness doesn't excuse such a blatant, pandering line. Women can do anything, except appreciate a movie's message without it being spelled out for them so overtly, apparently.
Appropriately, The Kitchen's three main ladies are accustomed to being underestimated. While their partners (Brian d'Arcy James, Jeremy Bobb and James Badge Dale) were prowling around, the trio did what they were told — and, in the case of domestic abuse victim Claire, as well as the verbally denigrated Ruby, weathered the consequences for simply existing. When their men are sentenced to three years in jail after a robbery, the new head honcho (Myk Watford) promises to take care of Kathy and company, but his offer is hardly generous. Struggling to get by, and observing that the neighbourhood isn't really receiving the protection that local stores are paying for, the gals decide to take matters into their own hands. Soon, they're not just collecting cash and keeping the streets safe, or negotiating criminal alliances, but getting violent to dispense with their problems.
For a film that brandishes its go-get-'em attitude as firmly as its 70s aesthetic (including terrific costuming, the picture's best touch), The Kitchen wades into murky territory, and quickly. A woman's fight to be treated decently, let alone fairly, can be brutal. It's a topic well worth exploring, as the similar and far superior Widows did so exceptionally last year. Here, stock-standard crime antics are on display instead. If you've seen a gangster flick before, then you've seen Kathy, Claire and Ruby's path, as they battle their naysayers, get ruthless over turf and, eventually, face internal squabbles amongst themselves. The film makes it clear that Kathy is just trying to take care of her kids, that Claire wants to regain her sense of power after a decade in a dehumanising marriage, and that Ruby has racial barriers to overcome — not to mention a rude and overbearing mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And yet, it still treats those details as mere window dressing, without truly stopping to contemplate what they mean. Claire's jump from victim to killer is particularly flimsy, though her romance with kindly hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) does give the movie its best and most resonant moment.
Evident in the aforementioned scene, and in The Kitchen as a whole, is ample talent. This isn't a badly acted film, with McCarthy, Moss and Haddish all making an impression, adding solid performances to their individual resumes. They just can't lift the thoroughly mediocre and familiar material, not that they're really asked to. They can't patch over the clear gaps in a movie that wants to make a statement, serve up a serious crime story and rustle up a few laughs as well. That's The Kitchen in a nutshell. Marking the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), it has good intentions, however it never feels like it knows what it wants to do with them — other than splash around a clumsy girl power message to get an easy response.