‘The Kitchen’: Elisabeth Moss, Melissa Mccarthy and Tiffany Haddish Are Great in Otherwise Stale Crime Caper

The Kitchen” seems to imply that family values and feminist ideals are best expressed through running a criminal organization, chopping up opponents and handing your frail husband over to another crime lord. At least that is the impression one gets while sitting through this caper that nonetheless features a fantastic cast. Based on a DC Vertigo comic book series, “The Kitchen” doesn’t know if it wants it to be funny or dramatic, violent or moving. Some movies can be all of these things, but not this one.

It is 1978 in New York City and Hell’s Kitchen is run by the Irish mafia. Three mob husbands, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Bobb) and James (James Badge Dale) are caught in an FBI sting while attempting to carry out a robbery. Their respective wives, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) are suddenly left without income. Led by Kathy, the trio decides to offer their services to the local thugs who bossed their husbands around. When the mobsters refuse the women decide to take matters into their own hands and begin to collect protection money from businesses, snuff out pests, like local pimps and the homeless, and hire a hit man named Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson). As the three wives essentially build their own criminal enterprise various new obstacles formulate. The old neighborhood mobsters are annoyed their money is going elsewhere and want the women gone, The ladies’ husbands suddenly get early release. Meanwhile snooping around are two cops, Gary Silvers (Common) and Gonzalo (E.J. Bonilla). 

“The Kitchen” is the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, a screenwriter who has worked on major films like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Sleepless” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” She’s currently penning an upcoming Conan the Barbarian revival as well. Yet what Berloff has done on the page she doesn’t quite achieve behind the camera. There is promise to be sure, the film has a confident visual style thanks to the eye of cinematographer Maryse Alberti and in setting a period Berloff certainly conjures 1978. Where the movie veers off course is in feeling confident about what it wants to say or do. 

There is no doubt an all-female cast can lead a good crime movie. The best crime thriller of last year was “Widows,” about a group of women finishing their husband’s heist plans after they are killed in a shootout. “The Kitchen” simply jumps around from plot point A to plot point B without bothering to truly build a convincing, narrative world. The characters don’t talk like individuals living in a seedy underworld, but like infomercials reminding locals that the mob is there to service them. This story is simply the mafia and guns for their own sake, as convenient plot devices. Ruby tells Kathy they can set an example for their neighborhood and revive the importance of family, which apparently means by running intimidation rackets and assassinating those who don’t conform. Consider the rather unnerving storyline involving a Hasidic Jewish developer refusing the ladies’ offer for protection, he takes it to a vote and one of the local Hasidic men who also doesn’t accept the deal is found shot dead on his doorway. Is that necessary? Before going rogue Kathy volunteers at a homeless shelter and is later attacked by a homeless man she earlier helped out with some food. As far as we can tell he just shoved her aside or threw her on the floor while committing a robbery of the shelter offices. Later Kathy and Gabriel find the man in the street and blow his brains out. That’s the sort of cheerful fascism even Dirty Harry would flinch at. Earlier a black pimp gets shot in the back while running away before Ruby tells two hookers they don’t need to work the street anymore, because hey, now they can work for a mob outfit. Community service at its best it seems.

What Berloff fails to do is generate any reason for us to feel sympathy for the main characters. It’s hard to buy the women had no choice than to become ruthless mobsters because every choice they make regarding extortion and murder is quite autonomous. We don’t know if we’re supposed to laugh when Gabriel shows the trio how to chop up dead bodies in a bathtub, because the tone is so straight-faced. When Claire becomes his lover we’re meant to find it sweet and endearing, because he’s such a (creepy) contrast to her abusive, now incarcerated husband. The movie’s own attitude seems to be unaware that by bedding a psycho and developing a love for assassinating the homeless and slicing up corpses, Claire would be considered in any rational society insane. This could be funny material, but it seems convinced it’s deep drama. Kathy insists to Jimmy, the nicest husband of the bunch, that she did this for their kids, although we barely get to even meet them. Ruby has the best motivations for transforming gradually into an uncompromising criminal. She’s stuck with the cheating, snarky James and his ominous, obnoxious mother Helen (Margo Martindale in the film’s best performance).

The movie becomes even more unconvincing once it tries to throw in a series of twists. Our heroines cut a deal with an Italian mobster memorably played by Bill Camp in which they will pay him to knock out their adversaries, which is an excuse for a few more oddly-paced killings. In lightly treading to avoid spoilers it can be said that one husband is abandoned to mob hitmen for no convincing reason and an anti-climactic standoff in a store ends with a teary-eyed, vengeance-seeking character literally shrugging their shoulders and walking off. One “shocking” twist involving Ruby is so contrived the movie would be much better without it. The message of the final scene appears to be, women criminals put your differences aside and unite to protect your community by muscling it. 

With a cast like this you’re sure to at the very least get some noteworthy performances. Melissa McCarthy summons motherly tears even when the dialogue sounds absurd, Elisabeth Moss is so good at conveying madness we hope she actually gets cast in a more appropriate film to let it out, and Tiffany Haddish has so much presence she belongs in a stronger thriller with edge. Margo Martindale is the mafia in-law who throws veiled racism at Ruby, played with palpable meanness.

It’s an emerging time for female filmmakers and the diversifying of gender roles in genre movies. “The Kitchen” features some great women in a yarn not worthy of their talents. Even the director might be too good for this movie as her debut. The first time is rarely the charm. Let’s hope the next caper delivers.

The Kitchen” opens Aug. 9 in theaters nationwide.