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Mob wives – ‘The Kitchen’

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While their position in the zeitgeist has ebbed and flowed over the decades, there’s no denying that mob stories are a fixture in our popular culture. The framework of organized crime allows for loads of violence and sex to go with interpersonal drama – it’s like the whole enterprise was invented for the stories (and plenty of it was).

Here’s the thing about popular stories – it’s tough to find new and successful ways in which to tell them.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem faced by “The Kitchen,” a 1970s-set mob movie that tries to venture down some different and interesting paths, but other than a few flashes, winds up largely bogged down in the clichés and tropes of the subgenre.

Based on the comic book series of the same name, “The Kitchen” tells the tale of three women forced by circumstance to team up and fill the void left by their absent husbands, who have been sent to prison. The leading trio is wildly talented, as is much of the supporting cast, but it isn’t enough; first-time director Andrea Berloff – directing from her own script – can’t seem to avoid the pitfalls of returning to such thoroughly excavated territory.

In the late 1970s, the Irish mafia controls the New York City neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. Their organization oversees anything and everything that goes on – often via methods that are far from legal.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy, “Can you Ever Forgive Me?”), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish, “The Secret Life of Pets 2”) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss, “Us”) don’t have a lot in common, but there is one big thing: all of their husbands work for the Irish mob. A plan involving the three men goes awry, leading to them getting busted by an FBI group led by Special Agent Gary Silvers (Common, “Hunter Killer”). In the end, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James, “First Man”), Kevin (James Badge Dale, “Into the Ashes”) and Rob (Jeremy Bobb, TV’s “Russian Doll”) are sentenced to three years in prison.

New family leader Little Jackie (Myk Watford, “Darkness Rising”) promises to do right by the wives, but the promised money turns out to be not nearly enough. And so, the three women decide to take matters into their own hands. Word gets out that local businesses are reluctant to pay protection because of perceived inaction by the mob; Kathy, Ruby and Claire fill the void (with a little help from a couple of loyal-to-them family members) and start moving the neighborhood forward.

This doesn’t go well, obviously, but the three manage to continue their climb to the top thanks to the timely assistance of Gabriel O’Malley (Domnhall Gleeson, “The Little Stranger”), a former enforcer who has returned to the city after years out west. From there, the sky is the limit, with the three of them becoming more and more powerful with each week that passes. In short order, they’ve got things turned around; everybody in the neighborhood loves them and they’re making more money than ever.

But what’s going to happen when their husbands get out? Will Jimmy’s pride allow him to cede power to his wife? Can Kevin reconcile Ruby’s new attitude with her old one? And will Claire take the abusive Rob back, even as she begins to find actual happiness?

What goes up must come down.

“The Kitchen” has a number of issues, but the biggest might be its striking resemblance to last year’s “Widows,” a film that was in all ways superior to this one. They aren’t the same movie, but they’re awfully close, and in any head-to-head comparison you care to make, “Widows” comes out on top easily.

There’s a haphazard feel to the plot; things are jumbled in such a way as to make it difficult to remain aware of chronology – things that should take some time happen in an eyeblink, while others are explored with unnecessary slowness. Most of what happens, you see coming, but what surprises there are don’t really make a ton of sense. The end result is chaotic storytelling that asks formulaic devices and tropes to do the heavy lifting.

It’s too bad, really – this is a dynamite cast that might have done something special with a better framework in which to work. McCarthy already showed her dramatic bona fides in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” – she’s got the chops to make something like this work. Too bad she’s largely undermined by the material. It’s a tough break for Haddish, who might have to wait a minute to get another crossover chance like this one – she’s all right, but clearly still new to this kind of role. Moss is the best of the three, but much of that is because Claire is the only one of the three leads to get much in the way of an arc. There are glimpses of the chemistry that could have been, but just that – glimpses. It’s a squandered opportunity.

As for the supporting cast, it’s more of the same. James, Dale and Bobb all do good work, but they’re not given any room to grow. Gleeson’s run is fun, but it’s tough to really sing with just one note. Margo Martindale and Bill Camp both crank it up in supporting roles as well.

But it isn’t enough.

“The Kitchen” is a deeply flawed movie that can’t take advantage of its strengths. Thanks to an inexperienced director and a muddied screenplay, the talented cast is left to flounder and make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Meanwhile, the audience is left to wonder what could have been.

It honestly doesn’t matter if you can stand the heat or not – you’ll want to get out of “The Kitchen.”

[1.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 August 2019 15:27

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