Making her directorial debut with The Kitchen, Andrea Berloff brings to life a crime drama with all the panache of an old-school mob movie, with a new perspective. Historically, the kitchen has been a “woman’s place” and often where mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends have congregated to talk, plan, vent. It was a relatively safe space and, as small as it may be, seemingly untouchable, ensconced in its own world away from everything and everyone else. The title, of course, serves as a double entendre, especially as the three women move out of the society-approved kitchen and into dominating Hell’s Kitchen, moving in spaces they’ve previously been shut out of simply because they’re women. Boasted by a fantastic cast, The Kitchen has specific moments that soar, even when its twists and turns don’t always land.
Set in 1978, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) become bereft after their husbands are sentenced to three years of prison. As the wives of powerful crime bosses, they’re promised protection and money and receive little of either. Tired of being set aside and forgotten, they take matters into their own hands and start small, taking control of business collections first. And it’s not long before all three are running Hell’s Kitchen.
The Kitchen takes a bit of time to get started, but when it does, the pacing really picks up and that’s when the movie really shines. From the women engaging with the various business owners in the neighborhood to hiring bodyguards — including Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel — and allying themselves with the Italian mob across the river in Brooklyn, the film doubles down on its strengths. The cast delivers fantastic performances and there are multiple layers to their characters. Kathy struggles with her father’s disappointment for the life she chose; Claire grapples with taking back some semblance of control over her life; Ruby faces racism and rejection from her Irish American mother-in-law.
This is all on top of not being taken seriously as women. Thankfully, however, The Kitchen is never overt in its feminist statements (which have been very performative in films as of late). There isn’t any dialogue declaring the underestimation of women. Rather, it’s shown through the push back they receive as they gain more power, as well as in their own perseverance. They’re confident, but the film allows them instances (however brief because this is still a crime movie) to lean into the fear, uncertainty, and unwillingness to let go of certain people despite their lack of support.
The Kitchen also deals in the aftermath of attaining such power, especially when it comes to their husbands’ reactions to being replaced and the realistic (if whiny) accusations of not making any room for them (as though they hadn’t been dismissive of their wives before). The film is framed around these women doing what it is they feel they need to do to survive, but they find that they excel at their jobs. The true epiphany is the realization that they no longer need to do these things, but that they also want to.
However, a fairly major twist rears its head in the final third of the movie and that is when the fast pacing works to the narrative’s detriment. It’s almost like Berloff realized that there was no major conflict by that point, so she wrote one in belatedly to make up for it. But the twist (one involving Haddish’s Ruby) wasn’t given time to fully develop, nor was there an effort made to truly sit in the reveal before moving on to tie everything up. It unravels without leaning into any of the larger implications of Ruby’s actions and makes for somewhat of an unsatisfying wrap-up. The film concludes on a note that leaves you wanting more and, while that’s usually a good thing, it definitely needed additional time to flesh out some of its concepts and character arcs. Otherwise the conflict was empty and lacked the proper impact.
The Kitchen is good when it wants to be, bold in its execution and setup and intriguing when it focuses on the women behind the mob. However, it flounders in the third act because it tries to introduce a few subplots without having laid the foundation for them in the first half, culminating in a film that loses its momentum instead of reaching the potential it showcased throughout.