Movie ideas often seem to come in twos, and so just on the (high) heels of last year's excellent "Widows" comes Andrea Berloff's "The Kitchen," another drama about mob wives who, in the absence of their husbands, take over the family business.
(Both movies, for the record, were long predated by their source material: "Widows" was based on a 1980s TV series written by Lynda La Plante; "The Kitchen" is from a 2014 Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle.)
Set in New York's gritty Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in 1978 and filmed in faded browns and rusts, "The Kitchen"— except for one incandescent performance — is as good as it needs to be, but no more.
Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), early in the film, stand shocked as their Irish mobster husbands are rounded up and sent to prison by the FBI. The men, who are each given exactly one character note (Kathy's husband is kind and loving, Ruby's is a rebel for having married a black woman, Claire's is a vicious abuser), had been running the neighborhood, collecting protection payments and wreaking violent revenge on those who didn't comply. Quickly and fairly implausibly, the women take over their husbands' work, strutting around the neighborhood tucking wads of money into their swinging purses. But we know, despite their satisfied smiles, that it won't be that easy.
"The Kitchen" suffers from that familiarity; we've all seen too many mob movies, and this particular twist on it comes in the shadow of "Widows," a much more elegant and engrossing film. It's made watchable by the three women at its center. McCarthy reminds us how good she was in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," giving Kathy a steel mama-bear core under a sweet surface. Haddish, whose eyebrows often seem to be giving a delicious performance of their own, makes Ruby happily amoral; she's a pragmatist who sees an opportunity and takes it.
But it's Moss who seizes the film. Her Claire, a battered wife who looks like a bruised shadow and speaks in a whisper, slowly finds strength as the film progresses; it's as if she's waking up, getting taller and stronger and louder before our eyes. Berloff, in a way that a male director might not, shows us how the neighborhood seethes with danger for a frail-looking woman like Claire; early in the film, she can't walk down the street without being harassed by leering predators.
As the film progresses, the fear in her face fades; she develops an ethereal but resolute toughness, though there's still something remote and sad in her gaze. It's a fascinating, detailed performance, and it gives "The Kitchen" some much-needed nuance.