For the second time in less than year, we have a major motion picture about the wives of bad guys turning criminal when their spouses are put out of commission.
The first such movie was Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a brilliant crime thriller that should have garnered multiple Oscar nominations.
Now comes the stylish but nasty and heavy-handed “The Kitchen,” which is based on the Vertigo comic book miniseries of the same name and is isn’t remotely in the same league as “Widows.”
Director Andrea Berloff and the production team display a keen eye for the Hell’s Kitchen of the late 1970s, and the greatly talented trio of Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss turn in bad-ass dramatic work — but the story favors instant plot developments, quick-shock moments and gruesome violence over a natural and organic story arc.
Anyone could get shot at any time. On the first two, maybe three, occasions when that occurs, it makes for an effective jolt to the senses.
But the more it happens, the more it feels gratuitous and the less it has an impact on us.
McCarthy plays Kathy Brennan, a loving mother of two young children with her husband Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), a middle-rung Irish-American mobster.
Moss is Claire Walsh, whose husband Rob (Jeremy Robb) is a volatile piece of garbage who regularly beats her.
Tiffany Haddish is Ruby, who is married to Kevin (James Badge Dale), the head of the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. Kevin’s father, now gone, used to run things, but his mother Helen (Margo Martindale, excellent as always) still commands respect in the neighborhood and pulls many a string behind the scenes. (And no, Helen has never been thrilled about her son marrying an African-American woman from Uptown, and she isn’t shy about expressing that sentiment).
When the men are sentenced to three years in prison for a liquor store robbery, their wives find themselves in desperate straits. (The envelopes of cash they get from local crime boss Myk Watford’s “Little Jackie” Quinn to “tide them over” isn’t even enough to cover rent.)
Little Jackie is a hot-tempered, preening, incompetent clown. He continues to collect “protection money” from the local merchants, but they’ve had it with him because as the neighborhood is getting rougher and rougher, he doesn’t actually provide any protection or security.
The wives see an opening. They’ll take over the collections and enforcement duties (with the help of some of their husbands’ loyal associates).
And before you can say “montage set to period-piece rock song,” Kathy and Ruby and Claire are flashing their handguns, raking in piles of cash and learning how to dismember bodies before putting the pieces in garbage bags and dumping them in the river. It’s almost too easy.
If that sounds wildly implausible, even knowing this story is based on a comic book series … you’re not wrong.
Domhnall Gleason turns up as Gabriel, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD issues who has been out West for a few years but has come home with a specific mission in mind. (Gabriel’s first onscreen appearance comes out of nowhere and is filmed in a manner in which it feels like we’re supposed to know who this guy is — but we have no idea. It undercuts the impact of this very pivotal scene.)
Common plays an FBI agent trying to figure out who’s behind the rash of murders in Hell’s Kitchen (and in neighboring areas). Bill Camp is Alfonso Coretti, a powerful Italian mobster who wants to strike an alliance with the suddenly powerful and dangerous women.
Strong work by all, most notably the three leads, but the fine acting isn’t nearly enough to overcome a storyline that makes it increasingly difficult, and then downright impossible, to empathize with these women. When they’re underdogs who have been kicked around by life and are doing whatever they can to survive (and in some cases protect and provide for their children), we dig their outlaw spirit and their resourcefulness. And hey, some of their victims had it coming.
But as the bullets keep flying and the blood continues to splatter and spill, Kathy and Claire and Ruby seem like totally different people than they were just a few months ago — and sometimes it feels as if they’re hardly human at all. It gets to the point where it hardly matters to us who lives and who dies, because they’re all stone-cold killers.