Kathy is good at it. Claire relishes the violence. Ruby wants to control her own destiny. Drawn together by circumstance — or, more appropriately, because their individually unsatisfying husbands all worked together, badly enough that the cops busted them and now their women need to pick up the pieces — the trio at the center of Andrea Berloff’s “The Kitchen” sets about building their own criminal empire with surprising results.
Set in the grit and grime of ’70s-era New York City, mostly in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of its title, Berloff’s feature directorial debut adds a vivid, and yes, very violent new twist on the mob genre, swapping in scrappy ladies in a typically male-dominated world.
That’s the hook of both the film and the story that plays out within it, as Berloff’s film opens with an ill-fated mob job that throws Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Kevin (James Badge Dale), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) into prison for the foreseeable future, thanks to a pair of FBI agents (Common and E.J. Bonilla) hellbent on cleaning up a messy city.
In a canny opening sequence, Berloff not only sends the three mob underlings packing, but introduces their very different wives (and their very different relationships). Jimmy is good to Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), while Kevin and his mother (Margo Martindale) aren’t very nice to Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Rob is still worse to Claire (Elisabeth Moss, the film’s MVP).
When their men are sent away, the women bond together to…well, mostly just scrape by. But after they’re dismissed by the Irish mob that promised to keep them afloat, Kathy, Claire, and Ruby come up with a fresh idea: Maybe just start their own mafia? Adapted by Berloff from Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle’s Vertigo comic book miniseries of the same name, “The Kitchen” cooks up one hell of an intriguing premise. It’s not just Kathy, Claire, and Ruby who have been left behind by the lackadaisical local mob’ it’s the rest of the neighborhood, blue collar folks who are still on the hook to fork over money to the hard-drinking bosses who no longer offer them actual protection.
Used to getting things done with very little, Kathy, Claire, and Ruby start their own outfit, knowing they’ll have to deal with some massive repercussions. Despite early successes, many of them punctuated by cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s keen eye for finding comic book-like framing that fits beautifully alongside the source material and stellar production design, there’s little doubt things are going to go topside.
Berloff doesn’t blink at the violence inherent to her story, and despite a few off-kilter chuckles here and there, “The Kitchen” is a hard-bitten, hard-boiled crime drama in which feeling affection for any character is a recipe for heartbreak. Dead bodies litter the sidewalk in front of the mob’s hangout, one lead character is subjected to a shocking sexual assault, and that’s before the gals and new pal Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson, appearing out of nowhere) start hacking up bodies and long before Bill Camp arrives as a fierce competitor. Still, the “sisters are doing it for themselves” theme of the film keeps things afloat, along with an often heavy-handed reminder that everyone is guilty of something.
McCarthy, who continues to prove her dramatic chops, makes a fine leader as Kathy, alternately conflicted by her success and the things she had to do to make it happen (in one underutilized narrative string, Kathy’s father voices his displeasure for the terrible work his seemingly sweet daughter is getting into, a tension never fully explored). Despite a rocky start, Haddish’s performance grows over time, and both she and Ruby end the film in decidedly different spaces. Still, it’s Moss that really shines here, as she turns her section of the story into a full-bodied arc for Claire, an abused woman who finds salvation in odd places (and people).
Despite a strong first act, the episodic nature of Berloff’s source material hamstrings the film’s narrative, and the film’s second half feels chopped up and disconnected from what has come before. Most damning, one character undergoes a major transformation, with a gobsmacking twist that has repercussions for not just every other character, but all the story beats leading up to it. Stuck inside a feature-length running time, such an arc feels truncated and out of place. And the zippy final reveal of what it all means (and how it all came together) does little to soften the landing.
Not that Berloff or “The Kitchen” are all that interested in anything soft with this material. Even a winning bond between the film’s central trio doesn’t always lend itself to feel-good emotions. Still, despite some major narrative missteps, the film’s bold twist on the mob drama still has a refreshing quality. Maybe “The Kitchen” would have fared better as a series, with more time for its potential material to simmer.
Warner Bros. will release “The Kitchen” in theaters on Friday, August 9.
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