There is something to be said for films that try to evoke feelings of nostalgia while imprinting a modern twist on the themes it tries to convey. Take for instance Andrea Berloff’s directorial debut, The Kitchen, which opens in theaters this weekend.
Based on the DC Vertigo comic mini-series The Kitchen which writer-director Berloff (World Trade Center, Straight Outta Compton) uses to tell the stories of three disaffected women in the late 1970s when they assume control of the Irish Mob in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen when their husbands are sent away for armed robbery.
Melissa McCarthy plays Kathy Brennan, a homemaker with marital ties to the mob. Tiffany Haddish plays Ruby O’Carroll, an outsider in the Irish community, and Elisabeth Moss plays Claire Walsh. With their husbands away and without any means to provide support for themselves or their families, they take up the duties their husbands left behind, along with their ghosts.
Berloff uses the story to paint Kathy, Ruby, and Claire as victims of their husbands’ inadequacies, a stamp of the time the film is set. When their husbands are sent up, the women miraculously grow a pair of balls and assume control of the neighborhood. The way they assume control of the neighborhood is actually quite charming as the necessity of their actions is clear. What became less clear is why they took the actions they did.
McCarthy, who has been hit or miss, is the lynchpin of the trio. Our sympathies lie with her as a mother and a provider to her community, playing to her “oh, woe is me” schtick. Haddish (The Oath, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) plays hardball with her character as she navigates her way toward power. Our sympathies lie with her as a neglected wife in a world that doesn’t want her, while Moss (The Old Man & the Gun, Us) who is a victim herself, learns to love the violence of the world she rapidly becomes a part of.
Though their roles as the respective husbands are smaller characters, they are no less important. Brian d’Arcy James (Spotlight) plays Jimmy Brennan, Kathy’s husband an aloof man who seemed an odd companion for Kathy. James Badge Dale (Only the Brave) plays Kevin O’Connell, Ruby’s husband. He’s the firecracker who goes off in a very restrained way. Jeremy Bobb (The Drop, Going in Style) plays Rob Walsh, Claire’s husband. He plays the most vindictive of the husbands and while it is certainly easy to understand Claire’s motivation, his motivation was not laid out as clearly, diminishing her role, but not her performance.
The supporting cast is exceptionally strong as well. Domhnall Gleeson plays Gabriel O’Malley, a wisecracking former mob lieutenant and Vietnam vet with a lot of pent up angst and the will to use it. Bill Camp (Skin) plays Alfonso Coretti, an Italian mob boss. Coretti is an interesting juxtaposition for our trio in that he could have been more violent, but he was a sweetheart. To a point.
One area where I will give Berloff credit is her song choices throughout the film, songs that were popular for 1978. The choices she made make the trio of ladies stand out a whole lot more than if she had just gone with an instrumental score.
The difficulty with The Kitchen is that it has so much to say that its characters become nebulous, a victim of their own circumstances. The technical side of the storytelling didn’t service the story well, with editing a constant challenge. While the film tries to be Goodfellas meets Widows, the story is rendered less dangerous or cleverer than the films it strives to be.
The Kitchen is rated R by the MPAA and is in theaters, Friday August 9.
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros.