Let’s take a moment to pour one out for Steve McQueen’s Widows, last year’s sadly overlooked slice of brilliance about Viola Davis leading a ragtag group of mourning wives in a heist intended to pay off their late husbands’ debts. That film knew how to subvert the gender politics of the crime genre, a world usually dominated by men, to produce not only a thrilling tale of empowerment but a scathing condemnation of the ways powerful men cheat and lie to pull down women at every opportunity. Despite failing at the box office and garnering zero awards attention, Widows has quickly become a cult favorite largely due to the fact that it so effortlessly spits in the face of misogyny both in and outside of the film industry itself. As numerous Twitter accounts have tweeted, “we have no choice but to stan.”
Now, let’s talk about The Kitchen, this year’s fairly similar tale about three mob women who conspire to take over organized crime after their husbands are sent to prison. Despite the solid performances from the admirable trio at its center, Andrea Berloff’s adaptation is a disaster in all the ways Widows is not. While that film soared in bringing to life a group of women with fascinating and complex interior lives complicated even further by their relationships with not only their husbands but each other, Berloff’s film considers the mere concept of characterization to be a waste of time. It would rather just get to murdering folks.
Almost entirely lacking a tangible first act, the film opens with Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) wondering what the hell to do now that their husbands are locked up. Before we can get a sense of their personalities or relationships with one another, Kathy suggests running the mob racket themselves and we’re off to the races. Through their various crimes, the trio’s trope-ridden character types emerge: Kathy is a caring mother driven by her desire to take care of her family and community, Ruby is a fierce and power-hungry woman looking to rise above her station, and Claire is a battered and shy girl who eagerly embraces the violent tendencies of the group’s quest for control.
The film rushes so quickly into the day-to-day operations of this motley crew that their actions seem less understandable and more unbelievably cruel. Before we know it, the girl gang is even more violent than their predecessors; they trade in beatings and robberies for murder and systemic persecution. The problem is that the film mistakes all this for empowerment, but we never get enough backstory for any of this to feel cathartic or justified. The story is often so at odds with itself that its moral center is exceedingly blurred as the film progresses; one minute Kathy insists the gang isn’t malevolent, the next we see a Jewish man murdered by Claire for failing to agree with their demands. These scenes highlight that the film’s racial politics are often abhorrent, but it’s less vindictive and more completely ignorant of what it’s saying.
Most of The Kitchen’s trouble can be blamed on its confounding editing, which is so choppily pieced together that it makes you wonder if there was Big Little Lies drama going on behind the scenes. Scenes come and go with almost no relation to what came before, playing out like sloppy vignettes begging for a cohesive plot to hold it all together. There are a few subplots that have a solid through-line, from a romance between Claire and hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) to an alliance formed with the Italian mob. The pity is that none of it goes anywhere, getting the hell out of the way for the inevitable “crime doesn’t pay” conclusion that again sees the film stepping all over its own messaging.
There are a few positives among the scraps, however, namely the performances from Haddish and Moss. Despite the script betraying them with underwritten roles, the two breakout actresses prove they’re more than worthy of their own Goodfellas-like parts. Haddish, in her first genuine dramatic role, manages to make her tricky character feel the most believable of the trio, with real aspirations and demons driving her motivations. Moss’s arc is objectively bad, perhaps most egregiously buying into the murder = feminism of the script, but she is simply too powerful of an actress not to make it compelling. The only times this movie really feels like it has a pulse is when Moss and Gleeson are waxing poetic about murdering rapists together. It’s unfortunate that McCarthy, who showed off her bona fides as a dramatic actress with her excellent turn in last years Can You Ever Forgive Me?, never gets to shine like her co-stars. Instead she is relegated to being the moral center in a movie that doesn’t really have one in the first place.
It is hard not to think of McQueen’s Widows when viewing The Kitchen, as the former proves that women deserve a space in this genre to be heard. Sadly, Berloff’s adaptation is a shrug in comparison, barely staying afloat with a few solid pieces that never come together to form a solved puzzle. With nary a human element to be found, it burns out before it can even serve its last meal.
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