The glamor of the gangster film is as old as Hollywood itself. There’s transgressive appeal to a mob boss rising to power and keeping it, through whatever murder and graft is necessary. Andrea Berloff’s directorial debut, The Kitchen, is steeped in the iconography of 1970s crime classics such as The Godfather and Mean Streets, aiming to invoke a seedier New York where only intimidation and might are needed to rise to the top. However, the movie is also a quasi-comic tale of female empowerment, a narrative of three put-upon wives taking control of their husbands’ rackets and whipping them into shape.
Striking a balance between those two genres—a bluntly violent crime thriller and a heightened workplace dramedy—is a difficult task. The Kitchen fails as spectacularly as possible, trying to frame the ascent of Kathy (played by Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) as singularly triumphant, even though much of the action involves them arranging gangland killings and negotiating corrupt contracts. The vile business of organized crime is typically presented on-screen as morally corrosive; in The Kitchen, the ugliness is just an inconvenience to be navigated.
The film, written by Berloff (an Oscar nominee for her Straight Outta Compton screenplay), is based on a comic-book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, and it’s easy to see how such a yarn would work in a pulpier format. The entirely fictional story is set in mid-’70s Hell’s Kitchen, which is run by Irish mobsters played by Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb. After they’re busted by the FBI agent Gary Silvers (Common), their wives assume leadership of the criminal enterprise, killing their rivals and paying more attention to local-business owners seeking their protection.
There’s an admirable ruthlessness to the triumvirate’s operation, which also enlists the services of the local assassin/traumatized veteran Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) and allies with the Mafia in Brooklyn. A grim procedural on the process of growing and maintaining a racketeering enterprise in 1970s New York could have been fascinating in its own right. But The Kitchen can’t decide whether its protagonists are frightening antiheroes or emboldened pioneers; every victorious musical montage of Kathy, Ruby, and Claire at work dishearteningly seems to suggest the latter.
Each of the leads almost seems to be the star of her own, wildly different film. Kathy, a mother of two whose relationship with her husband was fairly stable, approaches mob life with practicality and stick-to-it-ness, brokering a big construction contract for the unions she controls. This effort entails the harassment of the Hasidic community and quickly escalates to homicide—something the movie shrugs off as the cost of doing business. Ruby has to contend with the racism of her Irish mother-in-law (Margo Martindale) and the suspicion of a community she married into. The film dampens Haddish’s natural comic energy, saddling the actor with a one-dimensionally cruel character who barely has a connection to the other two leads.
Perhaps the strangest story line of all is the one given to Claire, whose vicious and stupid husband abuses her before he’s thrown in jail. Once he’s gone, she links up with Gabriel and quickly takes to his death-dealing ways, shooting rivals on the street with impunity. Her arc is far more lurid than Kathy’s behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, and Berloff can’t get the two tones to coexist; dozens of transitions in The Kitchen are jarring as a result. Were the film building to a particularly tragic denouement, then the spiraling narrative of three women getting sucked deeper into a life of crime might make more sense.
Instead, The Kitchen ends on a hopeful note, despite the high body count that has built up along the way. The optimism is baffling and unearned, and it’s made all the odder by the preceding atonality: Some scenes of murder are played for laughs and applause, while others are treated with solemn horror. One character lectures Kathy on the terrible life she’s leading, then comes back later to tell her what a good job she’s doing. I spent most of The Kitchen’s running time wondering if the film had been hastily reedited, or cut down from a more sprawling length—anything to explain the chaos playing out on-screen. Whatever the cause, The Kitchen is an unsalvageable mess.