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Standing the heat

Three women stay in Hell's 'Kitchen' to embrace a life of crime

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Screenwriter Andrea Berloff makes her directorial debut with "The Kitchen," which proceeds from a crackerjack premise: When three Irish mob lieutenants (Brian d'Arcy James, James Badge Dale and Jeremy Bobb) from Hell's Kitchen get sent up the river, their respective wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O'Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) have little choice but to take over their rackets. Kathy has no poker face -- the mother of two small children wears a stricken expression for most of the film -- but she "Irishes" up her coffee and gets down to business all the same.

"You're the smart one," Ruby tells Kathy. Of the three women, Ruby starts out with the thickest skin from facing sexism and racism as a black wife in an Irish crime family. Claire feels the weakest but has the most fiery motivation to build her strength after years of domestic abuse, saying, "I am not getting knocked around ever again." For most of the film, the women are defined by their singular character trait and their shared mission: to remind the men (and a sour matriarch played by Margo Martindale) "what family means" and prove that if the men won't look out for them, women can do it for themselves.

Perhaps because culture has acclimated to top-notch long-form drama on television, "The Kitchen" feels too sketchy in its plotting and character development. The raw materials are here for an interesting look at male-female power dynamics but what's pieced together from them rarely connects with the audience in any meaningful way. This story could have something interesting to say about what it means to rise up in a man's world. Does it mean behaving like men? Proving there's a better way? Declaring independence from men or declaring truces? Yes, yes, yes and yes. To the extent that the film answers these questions, it does so in a fashion more muddy than complex. When the script does get pointed, it also gets stupidly blunt ("I've never felt stronger," Kathy tells her dad. "You're a criminal, Kathy," he replies).

What begins as a seemingly kinder, gentler neighborhood protection racket becomes better living through guns and a vaulting ambition to expand beyond Hell's Kitchen. Because of its hurried pacing, the film doesn't quite make us feel the potentially Shakespearean sweep of this arc, either, and the leading performances feel similarly hemmed in by the script's limitations. These women are both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to themselves and each other, which could be fascinating stuff.

— Peter Canavese

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