It’s not unfair to scoff at movies made from graphic novels as being “based on comic books.” The Kitchen (adapted from the 2014 graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle) is not mischaracterized as such, because it can be taken seriously only by committed graphic-novel fans. To others, the premise of three Irish Mafia wives in the Hell’s Kitchen section of 1970s New York City who resort to the goon-squad actions of their out-of-commission husbands sounds like something to poke fun at.
Who can blame the skeptics? This movie version of the comic book actually stars comediennes: Melissa McCarthy as Kathy and, through the benefit of non-traditional casting, Tiffany Haddish as Ruby. Elizabeth Moss, as Claire, has based her career playing sad-sacks and harpies, in Mad Men, The Square, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Her Smell; so Moss is a comic actress by default.
Anyone who has already suffered through this familiar plot gimmick in Steve McQueen’s very similar Widows has earned the right to scoff at The Kitchen. The irony of women stepping out of their “place” and becoming ruthless criminals —Three Hillary-era Musketeers — has very quickly lost its novelty.
This repellant behavior is equally the fault of graphic-novel pretense and female-revenge clichés. The idea that women should be idolized for acting as antisocial as men derives from both the juvenile cynicism of the publishing industry and the ethical indifference of political activists. McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss brazen their way through this nonsense with an undisguised sense of justification — they think they’re defending the rights of suppressed women to get some self-respect back from a social order that has victimized them.
It is the double-entendre title that exposes The Kitchen as cartoon feminism. The social realities of the Mayor Abe Beame–era of New York City are ignored in favor of CGI-manufactured nostalgic realism. Worse is the implication that these three women, in the middle of feminist advancement, settled scores by opposing societal norms. Only a few moments show these actresses leavening their personal resentment with winning wit: McCarthy’s Kathy conveys frustrated motherhood in a dinner-table scene; Haddish’s Ruby performs sullen black resentment; and Moss’s Claire fulfills the victim’s dream of reprisal — telling a male to teach her how to be merciless and violent on her own is the film’s central theme.
While I acknowledge the talent of McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss, it’s still necessary to ridicule their exploitation in this film’s casual comic-book feminist politics.
We cannot deny the questionable way in which contemporary actresses align themselves with certain (usually liberal) political positions. It is apparent in the ease with which The Kitchen dramatizes criminal female empowerment as if suitable for crime-movie, film-noir treatment.
Director-writer Andrea Berloff first made her name with Oliver Stone’s superlative World Trade Center, the finest of all 9/11 movies. But her Oscar-nominated screenplay for the N.W.A. bio-pic Straight Outta Compton showed her weakness for portraying P.C. attitudes. Berloff misreads her three heroines’ self-empowerment the same way she misunderstood the juvenile, ethnic politicization of the rap group N.W.A. — all the while ignoring how politics are used as a cover-up for narcissistic self-justification. The Kitchen is neither a good movie nor a reliable dramatization of female power. It is, in fact, a laughable insult to women and their social circumstances.