It happens in even the best kitchens: You bring together top-quality ingredients and a promising recipe, but somehow the end result comes out tasting wrong, just wrong.
And that’s what’s happened, alas, with “The Kitchen,” a New York mob story starring, for a change, women — the estimable trio of Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish, along with an intriguing supporting cast including Annabella Sciorra in a key cameo.
The film is the debut directing effort of Andrea Berloff, who also penned the screenplay (and was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing “Straight Outta Compton”). And the script, adapted from a graphic novel, features an enticing story: three mob wives join forces when their husbands are sent to jail, becoming mob bosses themselves to ensure their economic survival.
But once the plot is set in motion, things begin to go haywire. Despite compelling work from the leads and excellent supporting work from character actors like Margo Martindale and Bill Camp, it all starts to feel choppy and forced and then just tonally off — way off. Curious music choices merely add to the chaotic feel. By the end, you’re just remarking to yourself, “Come on, now. Really?!”
The title is a double entendre, referring to women’s traditional place, of course, but also to Hell’s Kitchen, the Manhattan neighborhood which now has upscale high-rises filled with Wall Street bankers, but in the late ’70s was home to poor or working-class families and Irish American gangs like the one portrayed here.
We begin with the botched holdup of a liquor store, which results in the three husbands getting sent to prison, leaving their loyal wives in the lurch.
“We’ll take care of you,” the gang’s leader promises the wives, but it becomes clear he won’t, and the women need to do something to make ends meet.
It’s Kathy (McCarthy) who becomes the de facto leader of their unlikely transformation. The most nuanced character of the bunch, Kathy is married to an ineffectual but decent man (an excellent Brian D’Arcy James) and at least has some love in her marriage.
The same cannot be said of Ruby (Haddish), who came to the neighborhood from Harlem, and is married to a nasty jerk with a downright racist mother (the reliable Martindale, doing what she can with a thin part). Then there’s Claire (Moss), the most downtrodden of the bunch, a victim of serial abuse from her pathetic excuse of a husband.
Somehow, immediately after their hubbies leave town, these women manage to convince the neighborhood’s shopowners with astonishing ease to switch allegiance and pay them protection money. Naturally this doesn’t go over well with the men.
So far so good. And then things start getting crazy — crazy violent. These heretofore meek women start to warm to the idea — fast — that being violent is a crucial element of their new job descriptions.
And they’re good at it, too, especially soft-spoken Claire, who, along with a new hitman boyfriend, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), learns she has a talent for carving up bodies in the tub. “Can I do the other leg?” she asks, as her handsome love interest explains how you need to cut out the lungs so they don’t fill up with air when the body gets tossed in the river. Moss is a terrific actress, but this metamorphosis is quite a lot to pull off.
Even harder to pull off: the film’s apparent argument that learning how to cut up a body, or execute a business rival to score points, is a step toward gender equality. Is this what we’re being told? It’s hard to know, as the bodies pile up faster than at the end of “Hamlet,” whether the goal here is a gritty period crime drama, a (very) black comedy, or a #MeToo-era celebration of the power women can unleash when they join forces.
By the way: It may be accidental, but the appearance of Sciorra, an excellent actress and also one of Harvey Weinstein’s chief accusers, sends its own message.
But, like so much else here, it’s getting drowned in a messy “Kitchen” sink.
“The Kitchen,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for violence, language throughout and some sexual content.” Running time: 102 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.