From The Godfather to Scarface to Goodfellas to Casino, it’s fair to say that the gangster/mafia genre has produced not only some of my all time favourite films, but some of the all time best films across the history of cinema. In the same breath, however, it is also undeniably a genre that has underserved and underrepresented women. By all accounts, The Kitchen had all of the ingredients to be a picture that I absolutely loved. A cast of awesome women in a familiar gangster setting that evokes plenty of my all time favourites, with a seemingly signature feminist twist. What could go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, pretty much everything. Set in 1970s New York, The Kitchen tells the story of Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss), three wives of Irish mobsters who, after their respective husbands are jailed for a botched robbery, take it upon themselves to restore the order and power of the racketeering game in Hell’s Kitchen.
Everything about that sounded great to me, which is why it is so hugely disappointing to report that despite a stellar cast list and interesting premise, The Kitchen feels flatter than the flattest pancake. Already an admittedly farfetched story to tell given the state of gender roles within a patriarchal Irish mob environment, nothing about the narrative feels believable, with decision after decision feeling completely jarring, jarring enough to remove the viewer from the film about every ten minutes or so.
Perhaps it’s not hard to imagine with leading ladies like Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish at the helm, but the film really struggles to find any kind of balance in its tone. At one moment a quite vicious and violent affair, the next a kind of strange dry comedy, The Kitchen seems to suffer from not having a true grasp of what it even wants to be. It must be noted that I don’t think this is the fault of the actresses, they are obviously only bringing to life what was already on the pages of the script.
One of the most rewarding things about mafia genre movies is that they tend to lead up to a huge event that pays off all of the smaller actions and decisions of the proceeding narrative, thing the end of The Godfather, for example. The Kitchen, however, seems to have a much better time of laying out the initial ‘ladies taking over’ idea than it does coming to any sort of satisfying conclusion. Once all of the chess pieces are in place, the audience is waiting for something to kick off, but the plot never really pays off in that kind of way, climaxing instead in a rather halfhearted and ‘safe’ way. Given the cool story idea and the awesome cast assembled, the overriding feeling is that The Kitchen really is a huge missed opportunity.
Any shreds of what makes The Kitchen watchable from start to finish comes from the on screen presences of its three leading ladies, and to be fair, they aren’t even excellent. As Kathy, Melissa McCarthy is, well, fine. We know very that she can handle drama from her Oscar nominated performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but here she doesn’t really have an occasion to shine. Kathy is a very paint by numbers character, the subservient housewife who finally gets the chance to make it on her own. It’s nothing new and McCarthy plays it as if it’s nothing new. She’s always good to watch, but this certainly isn’t going to be remembered as one of her defining roles.
As Ruby, Tiffany Haddish definitely feels the most out of place of the three leads, her dramatic tools still not quite as sharp. Haddish is forced to play out a lot of clunky, clumsy race related stuff as part of her personal narrative. The black wife of a white Irish mobster in the 1970s, this could have made for a really interesting watch, but the film is really lazy with its approach and just like McCarthy, Haddish just doesn’t really have much to do.
As abused wife Claire, Elisabeth Moss certainly has the most interesting character trajectory of the three, but by interesting I also mean bonkers. Striking up a love connection with a returned mobster played by Domhnall Gleeson, Claire goes from meek to, well, serial murderous. It’s a batshit thing to watch, but at least it’s something of note. Fittingly, for a film about mobsters, all three leading actresses are criminally wasted.
Overall, The Kitchen is not a winner. Some kind of weird First Wives Club meets Goodfellas with a side of Thelma And Louise, with the key point being that it is absolutely nowhere near being as good as any of those descriptors. It is incredibly forgettable, which is something I would never have thought I’d say about a mafia movie starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. Given my love of the genre and of those involved, this probably has to go down as one of my biggest disappointments of the year. My advice? Seek out something like Widows or Set It Off instead.