'The Kitchen' would empower its female mobsters more if it allowed them to be ugly and mean

True parity comes when artists can explore harsh roles without having to be simply badass or “strong.”
Elisabeth Moss as Claire, Melissa McCarthy as Kathy and Tiffany Haddish as Ruby in a scene from "The Kitchen."
Elisabeth Moss as Claire, Melissa McCarthy as Kathy and Tiffany Haddish as Ruby in a scene from "The Kitchen."Alison Cohen Rosa / Warner Bros.
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By Jenni Miller

“The Kitchen” turns the mob genre on its head with a bloody tale of three women who join the family business after their mostly good-for-nothing husbands get hauled off to jail. The 1970s-era drama stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as desperate wives who, until now, have lived primarily on the periphery of their husbands’ doings in the Irish mob.

Women can be ugly, gross, mean, violent and petty for any reason or no reason at all — and in real life, we are. Being flawed is so much more interesting and realistic.

It’s also the directorial debut of screenwriter Andrea Berloff, who snagged an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay for “Straight Outta Compton,” the NWA biopic that got fantastic reviews from critics and fans alike. Berloff’s screenplay for “The Kitchen” is based on the graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, a work which itself has been praised for its grittiness and chewy opportunities for female characters.

Unfortunately, however, it seems like something was lost in translation.

While “The Kitchen” pulls very few punches in terms of violence, punches are pulled when it comes to the star trio’s respective narrative arcs. The women’s motivations are a weird, reductive mélange of female empowerment, but not everything about and starring women needs to be empowering. Women can be ugly, gross, mean, violent and petty for any reason or no reason at all — and in real life, we are. Being flawed is so much more interesting and realistic; true parity comes when artists are allowed to explore that space without being reduced to simply being badass or “strong.”

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In “The Kitchen,” the motivations for each of our protagonists are fairly pat and come down to abuse and/or a lack of power in their own lives, and while these might be totally understandable reasons to resort to violence and crime in a fictional world, they come across on screen as muddied and flat.

Moss’ character, Claire, is horribly abused by her husband and, it seems, the world at large; when she’s finally saved by a gentle psycho played by Domhnall Gleeson, she finds she has a real talent for wet work. It’s an interesting development that could be explored more, but that’s pretty much all Claire has going for her.

It’s not entirely clear why Haddish’s Ruby tolerates her crappy husband’s philandering and his emotional abuse — not to mention his awful mother, played by a nearly unrecognizable Margo Martindale — but the racism she faces is a more decipherable motivator for her actions.

Kathy, a mother of two played with a steely earnestness by McCarthy, is practically mob royalty thanks to her grandfather, but her dad never wanted her to stay in the business, much less marry a mobster herself. Until her beloved husband goes to jail — one of the few seemingly non-scummy dudes in the story — she appears resigned to being a housewife and a mother.

Then they discover that they’re really good at crime, and what’s more, they enjoy it. If only we could just leave it at that; instead, their respective arcs are reduced to “abused woman enjoys dismembering men” and “Black woman sees organized crime as a way to empower her community” and “mother-of-two becomes a career woman who also gives back.” Kathy even gives a rather self-righteous speech to her disappointed dad about the good she’s doing for their family and the Family.

Even when Ruby and Kathy are enjoying diamond rings and stacks of cash, they’re doing it for a greater good.

The complexity of finding purpose in a world that’s written you off is worth exploring, as is the way women usually turn surviving sexual violence inwards and punish themselves — it’s not nearly as common to see someone like Claire finally reach a breaking point and focus her rage on other people, specifically men. There’s a reason why convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who after a life of abuse and trading sex for survival began murdering would-be rapist clients, is a folk hero in some circles. But this isn’t “9 to 5,” which smuggles messages about office politics, women banding together to fight a common good and opposition to sexual harassment into a Disney-fied movie with catchy tunes; this is a serious mob movie with the violence and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to match.

Yet even when Ruby and Kathy are enjoying diamond rings and stacks of cash, they’re doing it for a greater good. Annabella Sciorra has an especially pointed cameo as a mobster’s wife who practically high-fives the trio while name-checking feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Given Sciorra’s role in “The Sopranos” as Gloria Trillo, mob boss Tony’s troubled mistress, as well as her real-life experience at the hands of men like Harvey Weinstein, this is a meta-moment, but the way she’s wedged in is jarring. Steinem was still considered a radical in the ’70s, when she vocally supported the Black Panthers and other revolutionary forces. Sure, it’s possible that a mob wife would be secretly psyched about the change brewing, but it seems forced.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot riding on the success of “The Kitchen.” Any movie that stars three bold women acting mostly against type is a hard sell, but when a woman is also directing, and it’s her first feature, bad buzz can mean “director jail” for a woman.

Meanwhile, male filmmakers like Sundance-darling-turned-blockbuster-director (who was behind the “Book of Henry” bomb) Colin Trevorrow are handed chance upon chance. Even if “The Kitchen” makes a billion bucks, Hollywood suits will most likely hem and haw at greenlighting the next dark horse.

Is it possible that the movie struck a more reassuringly empowering tone than its source material simply because higher-ups thought audiences might find ruthless female mobsters harder to swallow than graphic novel readers? We’ll never know. But it’s worth asking given the high stakes and low rewards of watching this movie.