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The Kitchen **1/2

Impressive performances from the three leads make up for the underdeveloped story. 

Is it worth $10? Yes

In “The Kitchen,” the hilarious Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish’s characters run the Irish mafia after their husbands are sent to prison. Sounds like a humorous spoof of gangster movies, right? Or a farcical look at the shortcomings of male leadership, with a social message reminder that empowering women makes the world a better place for all?  

In fact, it’s none of these things. It’s certainly not a comedy, nor does it try to be, and it’s better because of it. Writer/director Andrea Berloff’s film is a straight drama (with occasional comic relief) about three women (Elisabeth Moss plays the third) who dare to step into a man’s world.

It’s Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, 1978. The three husbands (played by James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb and Brian d’Arcy James) are busted by two FBI agents (played by Common and E.J. Bonilla) who received an anonymous tip. Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss) are assured they’ll be taken care of financially. They are not. Confronting mob boss Jackie (Myk Watford) gets them nowhere. The mob is behind on collections, the women are told. So they take matters into their own hands and handle the collections themselves.

This is where things get a bit hazy. We’re to believe three housewives who’ve never felt safe walking the streets, and were not respected in their own homes, now have the temerity to hire muscle, bully developers and demand respect from other crime bosses. It’s a stretch, and because it’s a drama we have to take it seriously.

Mostly, though, it works, in part because you can understand how the violence, control and power would be intoxicating. The three actresses are terrific: It’s a worthy dramatic follow-up to McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, Moss’ character has the biggest arc and the most shocking moments, and Haddish is a force in her first non-comedic role—it’d be nice to see her in more dramas after this. Make no mistake: The movie works because of the three of them.

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If only it worked better as a whole. More details and intricacies regarding how the women took power and held onto it are needed. As is this feels glossed over. It’s a clever premise (it’s based on a comic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle), but Berloff’s script stops short of fully exploring how these women evolve. At a quick 102 minutes, there’s certainly time for more character development. As a result, the dramatic stakes never quite reach their maximum.

This is Berloff’s feature film directorial debut, and it’s possible her lack of experience hindered the final product. However, she is also an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for “Straight Outta Compton”), so there’s no forgiving the screenplay’s shortcomings. Thankfully, McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are enough to make “The Kitchen” worthwhile.

Did you know?
It was filmed on location in Harlem and The Bronx, which production designer Shane Valentino gave a 1970s look, i.e. lots of trash.

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