Synopsis – The wives of New York gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s continue to operate their husbands’ rackets after they’re locked up in prison.
My Take – It has been a while since we had a good mob film, right? Personally, I am really excited for the release of filmmaker Martin Scorsese‘s return to the genre with his upcoming The Irishman. While we wait for Netflix to drop the release date, as a fan of the genre I seemed contend to witness this adaption of Ollie Masters’ and Ming Doyle’s DC/Vertigo comic book on the big screen instead. After all a female-led mob film seemed like a cinematic niche.
Not to discount the greatness of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other films of the genre, but they barely have women with purposeful roles in them at all. Hence, on paper, this directorial debut of Andrea Berloff seemed like a genuine idea worth exploring, add to that the casting of Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss in the lead roles, and a stylish and timely theme of female empowerment, the film just sky rocketed in expectations.
Unfortunately, what we get instead is an incoherent mess in the form of a mediocre action flick that could’ve and should’ve been so much more. The film’s biggest weakness is the speed at which it tears through its story, reducing it to one crime family cliché after another, the story and its characters never get a chance to breathe, let alone time for the audience to invest in their respective plights.
Even the so-called twists come at breakneck speed before there’s even a chance to smell something fishy cooking. Also certain scenes appear to be the victim of hasty editing, feeling like we’re joining in mid-sentence or after some unknown time shift that are missing the key ingredient to tie it all together.
Sadly, the existence of this film alone speaks to Hollywood’s movement toward greater female representation both on- and off-screen, as director Andrea Berloff (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Straight Outta Compton), puts women here at the center of one of the cinema’s manliest genres, and leaves us with a stale taste of lukewarm execution.
Set in 1978, the story follows Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), three women married to three members of the Irish mafia. Each has their own crutch to bear, Kathy is a doting mom and housewife to Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), who despite being kind to her, prefers to keep her on the sidelines, Ruby faces racism from her hot-head ringleader husband Kevin (James Badge Dale) and her overbearing mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), while Claire is the victim of long-term physical abuse at the hands of her husband, Rob (Jeremy Bobb).
However, their lives takes an unexpected turn when the three husbands are busted during a robbery by Gary Silvers (Common) and Gonzalo Martinez (E.J. Bonilla), two F.B.I. agents who have been tracking their activities for some time, and sentence to three years. While the men assure their wives that the mob, led by Little Jackie Quinn (Myk Watford), will take care of them.
But the Irish aren’t running the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood like they used to: Crime is up and trust in the mob is low, and so payments are down, too. The envelopes of money the women receive aren’t cutting it. So, on their own, the women take matters into their own hands by collecting debts and offering security to the neighborhood.
Realizing that they can run their husband’s empire better, they hire Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), to become their enforcer, and decide to take over the whole mob family. But New York is both gritty and brutal, and they’re not going to be able to lead without a fight or without being willing to spill some blood.
There is nothing more frustrating than a film that wastes a good premise and a good cast, and this Andrea Berloff directed film does both. In my opinion, the film just doesn’t deliver the supposed feminist energy it so desperately wants to because it can’t quite decide what it’s actually saying about womanhood. Is the issue that men just flat-out don’t respect women? Is the issue that women get caught up in the same racial stereotyping as men? Is the issue that women can and should be more than wives and mothers, and that society doesn’t support that?
I suppose that’s what the film is trying to convey, but it muddies its own messaging with its insistence that matriarchal energy is what keeps people happy and that baked cookies brought to mob meetings are a nice touch. What’s worse it believes that for a women can only prove her wits by shooting a gun.
Upon release, many critics have drawn comparisons of the film with last year’s criminally unseen Widows directed by Steve McQueen, and to a certain degree, I can see why.
As both see women picking up slack from their criminal husbands, and both have an urban focus. But where Widows took the time to build its world, their relationships, their desires for the future, alongside their explorations into capitalist power, sexism, and racism, this film just isn’t capably well designed.
Things just happen in this film with no sort of consequence and no internal effect on the characters and their previous world, and the only constant in the storytelling is director Berloff’s insertion of girl-power-lite dialogue.
Sure, the film seems to knows how to communicate the general outline of the story’s emotional beats, but it has absolutely no idea how to make any of them land. For example, when Kathy and Ruby’s relationship grows tense and finally comes roaring to a head, instead of cheering or biting my nails in anticipation, I ended up looking at the time in my mobile phone. Even the plot twist at the end, which was supposed to be a moment of high crackling tension, made me laugh out loud with its absurdity.
The film made a clever change by turning Ruby, who is white in the comic, into a black woman, all done with a seemingly intention of re-framing her relationship dynamics and broadening the story to address the era’s racial issues, but instead of diving deep into Ruby’s frame of mind, it just wobbles around the issue.
Adding to the film’s mounting list of problems, it’s frantically edited. Personally I think, the editing, in addition to inexplicable character turns, introductions, and motivations, feels like the casualty of a longer piece cut down to hit a more palatable run time.
On the plus side, the only subplot that really works is the romance between Clare and damaged Vietnam vet and assassin Gabriel, who sees in Clare a great capacity for violence and nurtures it. The gritty Hell’s Kitchen setting and costumes succeeded in making the sequences of the women strutting the streets of their mafia empire look great, however the film’s reliance of 1970s musical montages to speed through the passage of time does little to build any suspense or impact.
The performances are fine. Melissa McCarthy more than proved her dramatic chops with her turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? And does most of the heavy lifting here, while Elisabeth Moss continues to be a powerhouse go-to for atypical roles. Surprisingly, Tiffany Haddish seemed like the odd one out who never seems to be able to meet the challenge of her more-seasoned co-stars. Weirdly at times, it seemed like McCarthy and Haddish are waiting to deliver the punchline to a joke that isn’t coming.
Domnhall Gleeson adds some delightfully gross levity to the film, however, in supporting roles, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Myk Watford, E.J. Bonilla and Jeremy Bobb fail to make an impact. On the whole, ‘The Kitchen’ is a massively disappointing crime drama which completely wastes its talents and potential material.
Directed – Andrea Berloff
Rated – R
Run Time – 102 minutes