The Kitchen (2019). 83 minutes. Directed by Andrea Berloff. Featuring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss.
This is a film about women running the Irish mob in 1970s New York City. This is not a film about women being female mob bosses. This is an important, refreshing distinction. As someone who walked into the theater expecting the latter, I could not be happier to have been mistaken.
The opening scenes reminded me of every other male-centered gangster film I’ve seen: three men saying goodbye to their wives one night to “go to work.” We see Jimmy, Rob, and Kevin as the subjects of these early shots and, had I not seen a trailer for the film before going into it, I would have assumed them to be the main characters. But director Andrea Berloff, a screenwriter best known for Straight Outta Compton, cuts that idea short as the very next thing the viewer sees is the FBI. After a fight scene and a dramatic arrest, it’s clear that these men were just the exposition, starting Berloff’s directorial debut off with a bang (or, more accurately, a punch).
This is the first time we really see our heroes, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss). They are first portrayed as timid, visibly nervous women, asking the gang bosses for sympathy money to stay afloat while their husbands are in prison, giving them cookies just to get a minute of their time, then being not-so-subtly threatened to be happy with whatever money you get and don’t bother us again. Cue Kathy’s realization that “we could run this operation better than they ever could” and the film really starts. Here is where the transition from woman to gangster unfolds, and it’s a beautiful and very entertaining metamorphosis.
From the eyes of a film critic, there were parts that were amazing, and parts that left me confused and a little disappointed. The music, the wardrobe, and the acting left nothing on the table. The soundtrack was female-dominated and matched the tone and era to a T. I loved the sweeping, period shots of New York City with a melodic female voice singing “It’s a Man’s World” during the opening credits.
I can imagine costume designer Sarah Edwards having a lot of fun on this project. The trio’s fashion reflected their status throughout the film; the colors got brighter and patterns got flashier as they called more shots and brought in more money (something not unnoticed by the same FBI agents who arrested their husbands). I really enjoyed the intersection of their femininity and their self-reliance in running Hell’s Kitchen, collecting their dirty money and keeping it in designer handbags.
All three lead actresses made each character a well-developed person with individual goals, flaws, and weaknesses, which is something that can be hard to find in mainstream film. Melissa McCarthy took a step away from comedy and toward the shadows, doing an amazing split between cutthroat kingpin and loving mother who looks for the good in people, even when there’s none to find. Tiffany Haddish brought Ruby to life in a gritty and dynamic way. As a black woman who married into the Irish, white “family,” she had the most to prove, but saw her opportunity to get power for herself and for her fellow black Americans. With this goal in mind, she let nothing stand in her way. She made the biggest decisions of the three women, leaving a few of those decisions to come as a huge surprise to her fellow bosses and to the viewer, getting her own spotlight as she reveals all the pies she’s had her fingers in (think #BlackGirlMagic but more hardcore). But most impressive to me was Elisabeth Moss as Claire. She underwent her own transformation from doormat to hitwoman. Her journey was emotional and uplifting, made even more compelling by Moss’s seamless and gradual changes in demeanor and increase in confidence, going from looking down and scurrying away from a catcaller, to pulling a gun on one in broad daylight.
All that being said, the pacing of the film for me was a bit sporadic. There were parts of the women’s rise to power that felt rushed, and some that seemed to drag on long enough to become somewhat monotonous.
This rhythm problem reached its lowest point when the film addressed the small cliffhangers and unexplained scenes that were peppered throughout the film. These small scenes were incorporated perfectly, existing in the middle of random and subtly connected to the women’s journey; but when they finally came to a head with a big reveal, it felt ill-explained with key details glossed over or rushed through. It reminded me of when a person is so excited to tell a story that they end up saying it all a little too fast, causing the timing and drama to suffer. This was partially because of the dialogue being vague, but also due to the editing showing flashback after flashback to the point that as a viewer I, at least, lost track of chronology. I loved what Berloff was trying to do, but this scene didn’t come together in the thrilling narrative it could have been.
From a feminst perspective, this film is something that the movie theater has been lacking for a long time. One cannot escape the play on the title, with the tired misogynistic phrase “women belong in the kitchen” acting as an example of malicious compliance. It shows women being cruel, in positions of power, making mistakes, and best of all, it shows they don’t always have to be best friends. After one pivotal scene, the slight tension that existed for a large portion of the film between Kathy and Ruby becomes an overt rift. I thought I had the ending figured out but, again, I was left happily mistaken and surprised. Even better, it left me wondering: had a carbon copy of The Kitchen been made starring men, would I have been surprised? That is what makes this film so important. It shows women being exactly as capable and as fallible as men. It is for that reason I loved watching this film even with its minor drawbacks, and why it saddens me that The Kitchen has received poor reviews in a number of mainstream publications. If we want films with powerful, human women, we have to watch them and prove they are worth making. I didn’t feel pandered to or superficially uplifted, I felt represented and ready to kick some ass.