2019 may go down as the year in which female directors gained a lasting foothold in the movie business. Counting this week, four of the past eight films reviewed in this column have been made by women. I can’t recall anything like this ratio in previous years, where one in ten is a more likely figure. Films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale or Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, need no special pleading but Andrea Berloff’s feminist mob movie, The Kitchen, is another story altogether.
The Kitchen is based on a comic book, and this adaptation never gets beyond the superficial style of the ‘graphic novel’ which absolves the reader from having to visualise anything for him or herself.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss play three wives of small-time gangsters who become 70s crime queens in New York’s (pre-gentrified) Hell’s Kitchen. McCarthy’s Kathy is a mum bringing up two small children, who has an obvious affection for her hopeless husband, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James). Moss’s Claire is married to Rob (Jeremy Bobb), a wife-beater whose violence has already caused her a miscarriage. For Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby, the problem is not just her husband, Kevin (James Badge Dale), but his foul-mouthed mother, Helen (Margo Martindale) who can’t see why her Irish son wanted to hook up with a black woman.
When a robbery ges wrong and their husbands are sent down for three years, the women are forced to fall back on the mob for support, but the money provided by the boss, little Jackie (Myk Watford), proves inadequate. Jackie says revenues are down, but when the women start investigating they find this is because the gang hasn’t been providing the necessary protection. It’s the trigger for the trio to take matters into their own hands.
They initially get assistance from a couple of sympathetic mobsters, then from an enforcer named Gabriel (an unlikely Domhnall Gleeson), who might best be described as a sympathetic psychopath. He also has a crush on Claire. In no time at all the rackets are earning money again, and the girls are enjoying their new status. The looming challenges come from the Italian gangs of Brooklyn who don’t like intrusions on their turf, and from the husbands’ pending release from prison.
The theme, needless to say, is ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’, but the story is singularly implausible. It may sound like a cute idea to take the popular genre of the gangster movie and make it into a feminist parable, but this was done not so long ago in Steve McQueen’s Widows, which was a much stronger film.
Each character in The Kitchen is clearly delineated in terms of their personality and motivations, but the transformation from long-suffering wives to cold-blooded hoodlums is not the least bit convincing. We’re expected to believe Kathy and the others are good at protection rackets because they have a feminine knack of listening to the customers and making allowances, but they are also willing to murder anyone who stands in their way. When they don’t wish to make a statement by leaving a corpse in plain sight, the preferred disposal method is to carve it up and dump it in the river.
What we get is a fullscale domestication of murder and extortion, as if these are regular businesses women have been unjustly prevented from pursuing. We are expected to feel elated when the girls prove to be even more ruthless than their male counterparts. At times it seems as if we’re watching a promotional film encouraging young women to undertake a life of crime.
Berloff probably felt it was a daring manoeuvre to have her heroines behave in such a gruesome manner while still making a play for our sympathies, but we soon realise they’re no better than the men. All the killing may be left to the angelic Gabriel, but Kathy, Ruby and Claire have no qualms whatsoever about these actions.
The final twist comes with a surprisingly friendly portrayal of the Mafia, in the shape of Bill Camp, who plays mob boss, Alfonso Coretti. Rather than coming down hard on the newcomers Coretti admires them and wants to go into partnership. This is the equivalent of some big company deciding they want to work with a successful local business. Another triumph for girl power!
The gangster movie is a dish that’s best served cold because the more a director tries to engage our sympathies the harder it is for us to reconcile a character’s human foibles with their inhuman deeds. In The Godfather we get close to the characters, we recognise the complexity of their motivations but are never expected to cheer them on. In The Kitchen the moral compass is seriously skewed as it treats murder and robbery as a form of affirmative action. Putting the violence to one side it reminded me of the bizarre morality of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which suggests it’s much more important to spend your school years partying than studying.
I hope it won’t sound prudish if I point out that implicitly endorsing crime, violence and academic slackness rings a discordant note in any film – not because we are accustomed to clichéd tales in which good always triumphs over evil, but because our life experience tells us these things are simply wrong. At a time when the United States is experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of shootings and hate crimes the message of The Kitchen is that you should only murder people in order to advance your business interests. In a parody of female empowerment it suggests that women need not suffer as domestic victims but get out there and do some murdering of their own.
Directed by Andrea Berloff
Written by Andrea Berloff, after a comic book by Ollie Masters & Ming Doyle
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Jeremy Bobb, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Myk Watford
USA, rated MA15+, 102 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 September, 2019