Across the long history of gangster movies, women have usually been relegated to molls, mothers, or voices of conscience; sometimes tough, but never in control. “The Kitchen,” a violent gender corrective set in an Irish mafia-run ’70s New York, has other plans, eager to present its trio of Hell’s Kitchen wives — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss — as badass, bloodthirsty bosses in their own right.
It’s an exploitation flip whose time has surely come, but what writer-director Andrea Berloff has cobbled together around this concept (based on a DC/Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle) is little more than another tone-challenged stumble through mob clichés as prevalent as the trash, graffiti and flared threads dominating the period design.
Coming a year after “Widows” disappointingly wrestled with a similar scenario of women taking on their husbands’ lawbreaking, “The Kitchen” has some of the same problems: a focus on shallow genre mechanics over believable characterization and the nuances of criminal solidarity. Also like “Widows,” “The Kitchen” choppily crams a miniseries’ worth of incident into two hours, which means we get the usual reliance on montage, music cues, and scenes of about four to five spoken lines max. Who has time to flesh out the psychological intricacies of one housewife-turned-mobster, much less three of them?
As illogical mob cartoons go, its setup is still a solid one, built on the abandonment and fear that gangster wives Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss) feel after their husbands are sent up the river for three years after FBI agents (led by Common) foil their liquor-store robbery. For Kathy, nice, supportive Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) was her rock while she raised their young children. Embittered Ruby’s Kevin (James Badge Dale) was a philandering jerk, but being left with his bigoted, clan-influential mom (a cane-wielding, snarling Margo Martindale) is its own additional punishment. And while battered Claire manages a smile when her tormentor Rob (Jeremy Bobb, “Russian Doll”) is sentenced to prison, the meager payout she, Ruby and Kathy receive in lieu of the men’s earnings isn’t enough to support them.
In defiance of acting boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford, “True Detective”), the women believe they can collect protection money, look after their community’s unemployed laborers, and follow up on grievances better than the men. Their taking charge comes with a body count, but it also gains them some allies. Kathy proves to be a born leader, Ruby a naturally strategic tough, and Claire a budding psychopath who sparks to gruesome body disposal protocol from friendly hitman and eventual lover Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson).
All of this happens so quickly and easily the narrative becomes a pinball machine of personality zags, power grabs, alliances, betrayals and executions, and it often feels as if entire chunks of grounding drama and personality moments are missing. Take a few seconds to wonder why Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is now a mob-woman power song, and you’ll miss a minor character’s slaying. A moment’s bristling at the queasy use of female empowerment dialogue to justify slaughter and criminality as aspirational – didn’t Pam Grier only ever need pure revenge to sell brutal feminine power? — and you’ll snap back just in time to wonder why the women are suddenly at each other’s throats. (As nice as it is to see Annabella Sciorra onscreen again as a Steinem-quoting crime-boss wife, it’s more thematic cameo than meaningful sampling of her talent.)
Last year McCarthy wonderfully personified a desperate turn toward illegality in “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” but Kathy is too thinly drawn to make an impression as a feathered, ferocious antihero. Haddish looks great in costumer Sarah Edwards’ (“Ocean’s Eight”) era-specific get-ups and delivers plenty of .38-caliber stares and fierce exit lines, but Ruby’s armor is all she has. Moss, meanwhile, is no stranger to inner darkness, but Claire’s arc is simply hollow, never resonating as either trauma case or the birth of a stone-cold killer.
The most richly performed example of old-school mob tension in service of a new take belongs to Bill Camp as a sharply tailored, elegant Italian mafioso; his half-tickled, half-threatening, all-proactive response to the women’s disruptive impact sells the movie’s conceit best of all. Certainly better than one more flashy montage of killings and street strutting does, which takes all the mood out of Maryse Alberti’s quasi-gritty street cinematography.
Berloff, making her feature directorial debut, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter best known for “Straight Outta Compton,” which also dramatized, pretty effectively, an underdog trio navigating a treacherous but exhilarating world. With “The Kitchen,” however, beholden as it is to familiar genre tropes at the same time it’s tasked with reworking them into a self-improvement tale (via murder, really?), it’s as if Berloff had never seen a gangster movie or, conversely, absorbed too many of them.
The memorable ones are immersive, dropping us so fully into the warped morality of people simultaneously loyal, charming and noxious that we can only see (even relish) the world through their compromised eyes. Women have been long overdue their “Goodfellas” or “Scarface,” but the not-too-hot “The Kitchen” is more superficial comic-book posturing than enjoyable blast of exploitation equality.