The title of The Kitchen is a double entendre, referring to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and also to the domestic subservience that’s entrapped the movie’s three main characters — gangsters’ wives left stranded when their husbands go to jail.
The title is almost a triple entendre, because the movie is also very kitschy — an attempt to re-create a 1970s Big Apple gangland milieu that comes off as a cross between the Liberty Mutual LiMu emu commercials and a dinner theater production of GoodFellas.
It that context, it’s hard to take seriously much that happens in writer-director Andrea Berloff’s gritty saga, starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss as women who are given an insufficient allowance when their husbands go to prison, so they supplement their income by supervising the rackets themselves — protection, extortion, and prostitution.
This is, believe it or not, presented as a kind of feel-good story, because the women are striking a blow against the patriarchy, but the movie’s pulp feminism coexists with some nettlesome questions: If you are a prostitute, does forwarding your earnings to a woman instead of a man make you any less exploited?
In The Kitchen, power equals empowerment, and the fact that these three women are controlling their own lives is the only thing that matters. If that sounds vaguely cartoonish, bear in mind that The Kitchen originated as a DC comic from the “adult” Vertigo series. Browse the artwork, and you’ll find one of the heroines lounging on a pile of money, smoking a cigar and wearing a fluorescent bra that matches the color of her stiletto heels.
Can you see Melissa McCarthy in that outfit?
Neither can she, and the movie, to its credit, significantly tones down the leads. McCarthy, as mob wife Kathy Brennan, looks plausibly like a housewife raising two kids and living off the meager earnings of her second-tier hoodlum husband.
When he’s sent up, she teams with Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss) to take control of the mob business, being handled incompetently by an interim leader (Myk Watford) and a bunch of lackeys. The women restore order by tapping unknown reserves of ruthless House of Lannister acumen, but war looms, and the ladies conclude they need a sadistic enforcer to help them maintain power.
You would be within your rights to pooh-pooh the actor cast in this role. It’s erstwhile A.A. Milne and all-around movie milquetoast Domhnall Gleeson, looking like he got lost on his way to a romantic comedy, but it’s not all Gleeson’s fault — there is mismatch of tone and content throughout The Kitchen, which is never sure how to pair its lurid turns of plot with its intersectional feminist ambitions. Ruby, for instance, is a Harlem woman who tells the other women that her road to independence has had extra obstacles.
It is Ruby, alas, who is saddled with the movie’s most regrettable lines, addressed to an Orthodox Jewish jeweler who objects to being blackmailed.
“I know you’re smart,” she says, “and I know you have money.”
Oy vey. In The Kitchen, not everybody gets a seat on the intersectional sofa.
The Kitchen. Directed by Andrea Berloff. With Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Common. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
Running time: 1 hours 46 mins.
Parents guide: R (violence, language)
Playing at: Area theaters.