Deep in writer-director Andrea Berloff’s adaptation of the Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle comic of the same name is a line that hits like a thud, marking the moment the movie lost me completely. The lead trio of queenpins, played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss, are approached by mob wife Maria Coretti (Annabella Sciorra). She is in awe of the moves these women are making, taking over the Irish mob of 1978 Hell’s Kitchen after their low-level enforcer husbands are sent to prison. As Maria puts it, they’re “all Gloria Steinem and shit. You give those guys hell.” The Kitchen is littered with moments like this — moments that reach for something meaningful to say about women and power and routine misogyny, but that end up pandering more than anything else. It’s as if the film is posturing toward its own importance rather than illuminating any meaningful truth about the characters or their place in the gritty milieu they are forced to navigate.
Crime dramas typically offer fertile ground for female creators and characters, as recent works like Top of the Lake, Destroyer, and Claws demonstrate. Despite its masculine reputation, noir has offered us some of the most entrancing images of women in American film, from the steely femme fatales of The Letter (1940) and The Last Seduction (1994) to the women armed with wily intelligence in works like The Phantom Lady (1944). These characters are bruising and empathetic, keenly observant and on the make. The Kitchen is one of the most frustrating films in recent memory owing to how it squanders the mammoth potential baked into its dramatic genre — and its cast.
Melissa McCarthy plays Kathy Brennan, a devoted mother and the only one of the trio in a somewhat healthy marriage. McCarthy is best in the scenes where her character is pushed into a corner, when her natural intelligence serves as the best shield against men who underestimate her. But even then, there is something about the character that rings false, most evident when she’s sitting around the dinner table with her young children and telling her daughter that being pretty is a way for women to accrue power. The price of such power is never discussed.
Tiffany Haddish plays Ruby, a black woman who married into the Irish mob and doesn’t seem to interact with black people on a regular, intimate basis anymore. Here is an intriguing moral bramble: Why would a black woman choose to occupy a space so clearly hostile toward her? If it’s in order to better her livelihood, what price is she willing to pay when it comes to her sense of self? But Ruby is the least served by a story that deals with racism in the bluntest of manners. The Kitchen doesn’t give many glimpses into her interior life — the loneliness she must feel, the anger she must use as armor. Instead, she simply stomachs surface-level displays of racism that primarily arrive in the form of vile and derogatory comments made by her mother-in-law and mob matriarch, Helen O’Malley (Margo Martindale). Haddish — a typically vibrant performer — seems lost in the role, unable to spin meaning or vitality out of an underdeveloped Ruby. Worse yet is a late-in-the-film twist that renders her character even more difficult to understand.
The most intriguing thread in the film concerns Elisabeth Moss’s Claire, a young woman in a viciously abusive marriage who sees her husband’s imprisonment as an opportunity to finally have the freedom she so richly deserves. She falls in with her ex, Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), a Vietnam veteran and enforcer, who teaches Claire how to kill and dismember bodies. It’s gruesome work that becomes a sort of calling for Claire. For her, violence isn’t something to run from anymore. Carrying a weapon and inflicting violence on the men around her is a way of reclaiming the power she lost in her marriage. In one striking scene, she takes out a gun on a cat-caller, her face alight with excitement at her newfound strength. Together, Moss and Gleeson maintain a chemistry that the other character couplings lack, making what otherwise plays like a limp film feel momentarily energetic.
Ultimately, though, the line of inquiry sparked by Claire — what does a survivor’s relationship to violence look like? — fizzles out as the one-hour-and-forty-three-minute film rushes to its climax. The Kitchen sprints from plot point to plot point without ever sitting with the violence inflicted by any of its characters. To make matters worse, the capable performers disappear into the morass of a story that has nothing meaningful to say about the notions of race and gender it haphazardly threads. What fails The Kitchen most is its writing; the women are too thinly drawn to amount to much beyond mouthpieces for individual set pieces, or vehicles for violence and great outfits. The beguiling costume design by Sarah Edwards does spark a few moments of interest, but they are few and far between.
The Kitchen’s faux-feminist angle isn’t an isolated incident but a symptom of a larger problem in a Hollywood landscape where filmmakers and executives are aware that audiences are hungry for representation of women’s stories but are widely unable to give us thoughtful considerations, instead feeling satisfied with the forgettable characterization of Ocean’s 8 and on-the-nose fight scenes of Captain Marvel (set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” no less). Noir, a genre marked by grit and grime and dark recesses, has the potential to offer a complex view of the anger and hunger lurking behind every American Dream. But watching The Kitchen, I half-expected every scene to end with a freeze-frame high five or the women yelling “girl power.” That’s how empty and trifling the film’s depiction of its characters relationships to power — and to one another — actually seemed.