The Kitchen is a great late-summer surprise. It’s that perfect blend of familiar formula (gangland drama in 1970’s New York City) with a new twist (a feminist anthem about the women taking over.) Oh, and it’s an adaption of a Vertigo comic from writer and director Andrea Berloff, who previously scripted Strait Outta Compton. Add in a trifecta of some of today’s most interesting working actresses– Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss— and you have my full attention. Summer 2019 has been a deluge of franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. The Kitchen breaks that mold by being something new and original.
And, folks, I am sick and tired of hearing people complain, “Hollywood never makes anything original!” “There aren’t enough female directors!” Well, here’s a chance for you to put your money where your mouth is. The only way to send a signal that you want more of this is to support it with your dollars. Support this with your dollars.
McCarthy plays Kathy, a streetsmart wife of a ne’er-do-well member of the local Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. Haddish is Ruby, who married a real piece of work but who is a member of the top Irish family in the neighborhood. And Moss is Claire, abused and cowed by her husband. When their husbands get sent up the river for a botched liquor store robbery, they band together, and then take over and show the lowlifes running their neighborhood how it’s really done.
Moss has the most interesting character arc as she learns to take her agency back — by force if necessary — and also forms a really beautiful Bonnie and Clyde type romance with Domnhall Gleeson, a messed up Vietnam vet who is important as the muscle of their nascent gang.
Haddish brings great energy to the mix, bringing to light her outsider status because of her skin color even though she married into a powerful mob family. As she begins to take her own power, she is a great character study in both what to do and what not to do to take your power back.
McCarthy is one of the most versatile and talented actors working today. Comedy, drama, action, sweet, spicy, salty, dirty, or squeaky clean, she can play anything. As in the best of her roles, she is a giving performer who pushes her costars to shine, even as she shines herself. Berloff’s direction and writing are the right touches here, forging and melding both a textual and metatextual message through McCarthy’s giving performance and the story itself into a powerful, feminist message about how patriarchy tries to divide women and make them compete with each other, but the better way is a femme-forward cooperation that makes everyone profit. McCarthy could’ve hogged the spotlight. Instead, she shares the bill perfectly with Haddish and Moss. Way to go, sisters.
It’s also a smart, cool gangland story that lets these three be badasses. As I09 founder Charlie Jane Anders wrote a few months back, we don’t just need “strong” female characters– we need complex characters “who make mistakes, and screw up, and hurt people, and learn from their disasters.” McCarthy’s portrayal of Kathy is motherly, but she’s also as complex and flawed as Al Pacino in The Godfather, Robert DeNiro in The Godfather II, Denzel Washington in American Gangster. She gives that same nuanced performance here–although running off a very different kind of energy–and it’s dynamite.
Haddish and Moss do as much wrong as they do right. They’re strong and they’re weak. They are working for something bigger and better, and they also fall prey to their own humanity. These are the complex, strong female characters we need.
And perhaps in a refreshing turn, the only character who feels a little thin is Gleeson’s, whose character is really only motivated as an accessory to the women in the story. Does that make you uncomfortable? It might be a signal for all of these generally underwritten female characters in these male-driven gangland dramas.
All of this adds up to a refreshing late-summer cocktail that’s the perfect blend of sweet, sour, and strong like a spicy frozen margarita.
Some critics have compared this to last year’s Widows, and while that’s not a terrible comparison, it’s also a relatively facile one. The only real comparison is they’re both female-cast-forward films, but Widows is a heist film. The Kitchen is a gangland movie. It’s like comparing Godfather Part II and Heat just because they both have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in them. But they’re fundamentally different kinds of movies. Widows never felt quite as explicitly feminist, but it did have a more subversive political message about Chicago racial politics. The Kitchen is also far more gritty, thanks to its 1978 Hell’s Kitchen setting compared to 2018 Chicago. Also, I’m not sure on what planet comparing a movie to another good movie is in any way a put-down. “It’s a lot like Goodfellas.” “Oh, ok, then I’ll definitely pass.” What?
August is normally a dumping ground for films studios don’t quite know what to do with or how to market. The only reason people might be concerned about the film is discomfort with its Gloria-Steinem era second-wave feminist ethos, which almost seems quaint 40 years later. Don’t be fooled by the lack of buzz, The Kitchen is worth getting back into.
3.5 out of 5 stars