THE KITCHEN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Andrea Berloff

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian D’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb, Bill Camp, Annabelle Sciorra, Margo Martindale, Myk Watford, Common, E J Bonilla, Wayne Duvall.

Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, and Tiffany Haddish in The Kitchen (2019)

A female Goodfellas? The Kitchen is a Scorsese-lite female driven violent crime drama set in that seedy area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen and tells the story of three housewives who emerge from the proverbial kitchen to become powerful mob figures in the late 70s.

Hell’s Kitchen is that area that covered about 20 blocks from 8th Avenue to the Hudson River, and was full of porn palaces, pawn shops, dive bars and small businesses that were paying protection money to the Irish mafia that controlled the neighbourhood. But for three women married to the mob life was not always easy or comfortable. Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy, cast largely against type in a straight role) was married to Jimmy (Brian D’Arcy James), who was trying to get out of the mob lifestyle and go straight. Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish, from Night School, etc) was married to Kevin (James Badge Dale), the head of the Irish mob, and she was the daughter-in-law of the racist and disapproving formidable matriarch Helen (Margo Martindale). And the mousy Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss, from tv series Mad Men, and an Emmy winner for The Handmaiden’s Tale, etc) was a punching bag for her sadistic and brutal husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb).

But when their husbands are arrested and sent to prison following an assault on a couple of undercover FBI agents during a foiled robbery the three women soon get their chance to flex their muscles.

While Kevin is in prison, Little Jackie (Myk Watford) assumes temporary control of the mob, but he is a fairly narcissistic person who doesn’t really care about the neighbourhood. When the local business owners begin to complain that they are paying protection money but getting very little help in return the three women step up. They manage to convince the local business proprietors to pay the money straight to them, which brings them into conflict with both Little Jimmy and Helen. But the women assume control of the mob and build up their power base and earn the gradual respect and, in some cases, fear of the locals.

The girls have to negotiate deals with powerful mobsters like the charismatic New Jersey gangster Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) in order to expand their powerbase. Claire also quickly falls into bed with former mob enforcer Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). The women soon become rich and powerful. But with the imminent release of their husbands, tension and a sense of paranoia quickly develops between the three women.

The Kitchen is based on an obscure 2014 graphic novel created by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle and has been adapted to the screen by Andrea Berloff (who was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay for Straight Outta Compton). However, the script is a little underwhelming and lacklustre and at times is simply unbelievable and some elements lack credibility. The film serves up plenty of violent moments, but there are also a number of clichés that have become a staple of Scorsese’s far more compelling and gripping crime dramas. Berloff makes her directorial debut here, but her pacing is uneven, and the film lacks the grittiness that was so evident in the recent female driven crime drama Widows.

However, the period detail is excellent. There is some authentic looking production design from Shane Valentino that effectively captures the era with the streets littered with trash bags and the walls adorned with grafitti. And cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Creed, The Wrestler, etc) has shot the film on the mean streets of New York and has used a brownish tone and palette that imbues the material with a nostalgic feel and makes it look as though it was actually shot in the 70s. The soundtrack features plenty of Fleetwood Mac, which lends a strong 70s vibe, but the songs are not used as effectively as a filmmaker like Scorsese, who also incorporates pop music into his gangster epics.

McCarthy delivers a strong performance here that again demonstrates that she should do more dramatic roles rather than the lame comedies with which she established her reputation. Moss is also good and conveys Claire’s growth from mousy victim to strong, confident woman and psychopath. Haddish brings plenty of sass to her role. Martindale is monstrous as the matriarch of the Irish mob and plays her role with relish.

But overall, The Kitchen fails to bring much heat to this lacklustre and uneven pulp crime drama.

★★☆

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