In 'The Kitchen,' Mob Wives Are Doin' it For Themselves

Hell(s Kitchen) hath no fury like a mob wife scorned: (L-R) Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish, and Melissa McCarthy star in New Line Cinema's drama 'The Kitchen'. (Alison Cohen Rosa/Warner Bros.)

In The Kitchen, Tiffany Haddish snatches a revolver from her just-out-of-jail gangster husband, gets up in his face, and snarls, "It's my business now."

It's a strong moment—one that gets at something deeper than the surface pleasures and platitudes of a mob movie led by women; it intimates just how caustic and corrosive running a business can be. How are the consequences of the American Dream—the ruthless ambitions that drive capitalism—gendered?

That's the question at the center of Andrea Berloff's film, based on the comic book miniseries by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. Yet so much of what's promising about The Kitchen, including its ability to explore that question meaningfully, is hampered by its need to justify its own existence—to keep convincing you that it's sufficiently woke.

The film follows three women (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss) whose Irish gangster husbands (Brian d'Arcy James, Kevin O'Carroll, and Jeremy Bobb, respectively) are sent to jail, leaving the three to pick up the pieces in 1970s-era Hell's Kitchen. As we watch them assert power and claim turf for themselves,The Kitchen does give Haddish and Moss room to flex their genre muscles, but it habitually second-guesses its own decision to tell its story in the first place.

The palpable, hesitant self-doubt the film exudes is ironic, given the trajectory of its characters' ascension in the mob world. Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish), and Claire (Moss) have to prove to the family that anything male mobsters can do, they can do better. It feels like the film, too, keeps trying to say this. In several scenes, characters explicate and underline that women can be gangsters, too, and that the world is misogynistic, patriarchal and racist.

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The character of Little Jackie (Myt Watford), for example—who runs things while Ruby's husband is behind bars—is written as a stingy, foul, cartoonishly misogynistic jerk. By showing him shorting the women the money they now need to support themselves and their families, the script tells us everything we need to know about how women are undervalued in that system. But the film relentlessly asserts and overexplains this point, stripping it of any human nuance. Writer-director Andrea Berloff's script similarly telegraphs what it means when the women take things into their own hands, employing clunky dialogue about how meaningful it is that these characters can do this.

Those moments when the film makes its points about gender and power dynamics using little to no dialogue are its most effective. It's a lot more interesting, for instance, to watch Tiffany Haddish strut down a crosswalk, hand held out at cars, evoking Pam Grier as she literally stops traffic, than it is to listen to her intone that they need to remind the family "what the word family even means."

It's also more exciting to watch Elisabeth Moss, whose character is heavily shaped by the marital abuse she's experienced, wield a Magnum at a street harasser than it is to watch her chew her way through ham-fisted speeches about the action she just took, or is about to take.

Once the film settles down and stops trying to rationalize itself, The Kitchen can be thrilling. Soon enough, things get appropriately pulpy and nasty, leaning into genre conventions and then inflecting them with female power. As Margo Channing might opine, "Funny business, a woman's career." Berloff lets her leads walk the streets like they own them, because they do, adding ghoulish details that drive this home: the body in the alleyway, the bloodstains on the wall, the cross hanging on a wall behind someone as they hack away at a corpse.

When it's actively exploring ambiguities of power and alliance, transaction and labor, leadership and territory, the film raises intriguing questions about capitalism, gender and race. And it manages to do so while supplying a steady stream of entertaining plot twists. As the relationships among these three women fluctuate and evolve, they emerge as clear, individualized characters, as opposed to mouthpieces delivering talking points about gender politics.

It takes roughly a third of the film's running time for it to stop insisting on itself long enough to dig deeper, beyond the surface optics of its story. In the end, Berloff is invested in showing us that in the mob—as in the world of "legitimate" business—empires are built on the blood of others. I just wish the film didn't feel it needed to tell us to buckle our seatbelts; we already knew it was going to be a bumpy night.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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