The babes-in-boyland gangster flick, “The Kitchen,” is no place to be. First-time director Andrea Berloff sees to that in presenting a recipe for female empowerment consisting of clichés, stock characters and proof that women can shakedown, kill, bribe and threaten as well as men.
Proving her theory are Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as put-upon mob wives whose husbands are sent to prison for three years. Watching them break bad isn’t a half-bad premise. It’s just what Berloff, an Oscar-nominee for writing “Straight Outta Compton,” puts her characters through is so derivative, not to mention her stereotypical characterizations of numbskull thugs, Hasidic Jews, Italians and the Irish. Hey, did you know the “Micks” like their whiskey?
Berloff treats Moss’ Claire Walsh the most egregiously. As a battered wife, Claire sports a shiner as if to underscore how tickled she (Moss drawing a pitch-perfect wry smile in court) is to see her hubby (Jeremy Bobb) getting housed in the hoosegow. But the script heaps even more physical atrocities on Claire to up the ante before reaching her-stand-on-her-own catharsis. That she gets a lift from a handsome but dangerous old flame (Domhnall Gleeson) doesn’t feel all that empowering.
An adaption of the Vertigo comic book series, the film opens to Etta James singing (on-the-nose alert) “It’s a Man’s World.” It’s 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, a New York neighborhood run by the Irish mafia. Berfloff makes quick work of the three husbands (Bobb, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale), who leave wives in varying stages of marital distress. They respond by joining forces to take over the family business, seizing power (after asking nicely and with homemade cookies) from Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and clan matriarch (Margo Martindale). It doesn’t take balls to do this work, a character says, it takes brains. If you’re feeling a sense of déjà vu, it’s because you’ve seen this movie before in last year’s (much-better) “Widows.”
As the movie plods, hitting all the expected beats, you can’t help hoping this ensemble of leading women will flip the film from low-rent gangster drivel to a raunchy physical comedy. It doesn’t happen. The days tick away. The ladies work the streets collecting manila envelopes full of cash. There’s a montage; and a dance-club scene. The body count grows - and grows. The FBI (Common, E.J. Bonilla) looks on. The most engaging scenes arrive via the great character actor Bill Camp, an Irishman, playing the rival Italian mob boss. The second highlight is a laser-pointed one-off about a nameless “S--- -for-brains millionaire’s kid,” who sits today in the Oval Office.
Those moments made me chuckle as much as the forced New York accents made me cringe. Ditto for the scene when Haddish’s Ruby hands her mother a wad of rolled up bills and Mom replies, “This is why I beat you.” Yikes. Someone get me out of this Hell.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, and Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb, E.J. Bonilla, Wayne Duvall, Annabella Sciorra, Myk Watford.
(R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content.)