A bunch of guys try to pull of a heist, which goes drastically wrong. The women they leave behind pick up the pieces to embark on a life of crime that’s as cathartically liberating as it is morally corrupting.
Insert “Widows” punchline here.
In “The Kitchen,” a pale, wildly uneven shadow of last year’s far superior film, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss play three women whose husbands are serving time for a low-rent robbery. Unhappy with the money they’re receiving from the men’s mob bosses, they decide to strike out on their own, offering genuine protection to local businesses and, eventually, taking over even more territory.
Set in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen and thinly based on the notorious Irish crime gang the Westies, “The Kitchen” resuscitates the grimy, trash-strewn dead-end-ness of Manhattan during that era, when Times Square was still sleazy and when polyester and pay phones were still a thing. Adapted by writer-director Andrea Berloff from a comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, this reality-adjacent version of the period – when the Westies were believed to have committed as many as 100 murders in a 20-year span – plays the brutality both for vicarious, vengeful pleasure and few mildly amusing laughs.
As Kathy, whose mother’s side of the family goes way back with the Irish mob, McCarthy brings a dimply, maternal concern that just happens to be packing heat. Claire, the abused wife played by Moss, discovers she had the heart of a killer all along.
The most curious casting choice here is Haddish, whose Ruby O’Carroll is an enigmatic bundle of contradictions. Although the character is the most complex and thoughtful, Haddish seems constrained throughout the movie, tamping down her natural exuberance to furrow her brow and scowl menacingly at the men who inevitably want to encroach on her newfound turf.
Clearly Berloff, who makes her directorial debut here, has assembled an A-1 cast for “The Kitchen,” which features such terrific supporting players as Margo Martindale, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Camp. She populates the Hell’s Kitchen of yesteryear with an equally accomplished cast of character actors, including Brian Tarantina and John Sharian as two low-level thugs who become the women’s muscle. She establishes a believably grungy sense of atmosphere. (“The Kitchen” was filmed as if through a dirty fishbowl by Maryse Alberti.)
But her scenes have a choppy, perfunctory quality that fights the story at every turn. People show up out of nowhere, have an encounter or fatal confrontation, then stop, as if in individual comic-book frames: It’s as if every sequence ends with an unspoken “ ... and scene.” Tonally, too, “The Kitchen” is all over the place: Although there are genuine moments of humor, they’re at odds with the increasingly ghastly measures taken by the three protagonists, as they succumb to power-hunger, paranoia and overkill.
It’s a shame, because Westies-era Hell’s Kitchen is a rich vein that’s been rarely mined (if ever) by filmmakers. Unlike such forebears as “Goodfellas” or “American Hustle” – both of which it dimly recalls – “The Kitchen” lacks the gravitas and subversive charge that characterizes the best gangster pictures. The visceral excitement – like the viscera themselves – has been left off screen in a film that portrays the diseased thrill of violence, but never truly interrogates it.
You might be able to stand “The Kitchen,” but it could use a little more heat.