Oh, what a movie The Kitchen could have been. It seems impossible to screw up a crime thriller starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as mob wives who turn the tables on the men who done them wrong. On paper, it’s a great idea to have Andrea Berloff, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Straight Outta Compton, make her feature directing debut with this adaptation of DC Vertigo comic book series by writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle.
Though the time is 1978 and the place is New York’s Hell’s Kitchen — then a garbage-strewn wasteland — the cast of McCarthy and Haddish leads us to expect comic mayhem. But except for a stray smile or two, the laughs never come. The Kitchen is deadly serious — and worse, deadly dull, even when it tries to act tough by laying on the violence and a heaping side of gore.
Kathy Brennan (McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Moss) are left at mercy of the Irish mob when their husbands are sentenced to three years in the pen. Claire doesn’t miss Rob (Jeremy Bobb) who beats and rapes her. Ruby hated the fact that her husband, Kevin (James Badge Dale), let his racist mother (the ever-superb Margo Martindale) goad her with insults about going back to Harlem. But Kathy still has a soft spot for Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), the father of their two children.
When local mob boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford) refuses to support the wives as promised, the women spring into action. Though the premise recalls Steve McQueen’s 2018 Widows, in which newly-solo mob wives also decide to do it for themselves, any resemblance vanishes when it dawns that Widows was a solid film and The Kitchen is built on quicksand. As staged, the scenes in which Kathy, Ruby and Claire presumably convince hardened street types to quake in their boots when they bark orders and fire guns have the impact of children playacting. Could these three dynamos have pulled off the trick with better writing and guidance? We’ll never know. Haddish seems uncomfortable with her humor valve shut off, and McCarthy fails to build the emotional resonance she displayed in her Oscar-nominated role in Can You Ever Forgive Me. Moss fares best, as Claire comes into her own and finds love with Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a protective hitman who teaches her how to dispose of bodies by cutting them up in a bathtub and dumping the pieces in the Hudson. You may not buy Moss as the butcher of Broadway, but she commits totally to the role.
In the final section of the film, Berloff and the actors aim for tragedy, but the film self-destructs from its own mixed messages. The women want to murder bad buys…and also improve the neighborhood. Huh? Things get worse when the husbands are released from jail and come home to take back their power, each looking thoroughly ridiculous in the process. There should be a catharsis in watching predatory men get theirs. But since they’re never developed as real characters, the pathos falls flat. The Kitchen strains credulity past the breaking point and goes disastrously off the rails, leaving its trio of femme powerhouseses looking as adrift and confused as the audience. Very little in The Kitchen is funny, but the movie itself is definitely a joke on anyone who buys a ticket.