The brisk, violent opening act of “The Kitchen” sets us up for a two-hour wallow in the grit, grime and crime of 1970s New York.
The novelty alone, the building of a crime empire run by three women “married to the mob,” is a great hook. Casting the newly-serious Melissa McCarthy, trying to be serious Tiffany Haddish and on a career-roll Elisabeth Moss as the leads is another.
But as the picture sputters and stalls, losing its quick pace and brutal efficiency in the later acts, this comic book adaptation reveals the flaws in its execution, if not its very origins.
McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are married into the Hells Kitchen Irish mob which, by the late ’70s, wasn’t just on its last legs, it was on crutches. And the marriages? Well, they’re various degrees of “limping along,” too.
Ruby (Haddish) is married to gang leader Kevin (James Badge Dale), a bossy Neanderthal who calls the shots at home and on the street. His mob ties go back generations. His “Animal Kingdom” mother (Margot Martindale) lives with them.
Kathy (McCarthy) is a mother of two who learned long ago not to question Jimmy’s (Brian Darcy James) sudden departures, explained with nothing more than “I got a thing to take care of.”
And Claire (Moss) has it worst of all, childless and pummeled on a regular basis by her brute (Jeremy Bobb) of a husband.
The best mob pictures, films like “Donnie Brasco,” are the ones that give us the dirty little secret these violent “Godfather” fans don’t want to get out. They’re lazy, lying, lowlife cheats who don’t pay their bills, can’t form a coherent thought and are bullying idiots to boot. Their special gift is chutzpah, having the brass to demand respect, to make good on a few of their violent threats as they collect “protection money” and expect unquestioning loyalty even if it’s not how they treat others.
Maybe there’s a reason “The Kitchen” is coming out in this particular presidency.
Kevin, Jimmy and Rob are bottom-feeding numbskulls. It isn’t enough that they’re caught red-handed by the Feds as they knock over a liquor store. They’ve got to beat up F.B.I. agents (Common) until NYPD shows up and it’s game over.
Prison for them, but what for their unemployed wives? “You’ll be taken care of” new boss (Myk Watford) promises, then bellows again when they see how little they’re told to get by with. Ruby’s mob matriarch mother-in-law practically spits on them. And merely being free from beatings isn’t enough to keep Claire going.
But if the guys tossed in prison were dumbbells, what’s that say for the gang “Little Jackie” (Watford) is left to run? They can’t collect because they can’t be bothered to protect. And respect? Fuggedaboutit.
A desperate Kathy offers to “help” with the collecting. They’ll use reason, persuasion and improved customer service to win back the delis, shoe stores and other businesses in their corner of Lower Manhattan. They’ll put a couple of under-employed tough guys on the payroll. They’ll split the take with Little Jackie.
Showing the guys up isn’t going to make them many friends. But just when things turn uglier, the sociopathic ginger hit man Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) comes back to town, “protecting” Claire, who is tired of needing that.
Watching this abused woman “snap” is one of the guilty pleasures of “The Kitchen.” One abuser is taken care of, but Claire doesn’t want Gabriel to do that for her. She wants to learn from him. The sociopath, who is sweet on her, teaches Claire Hitman 101.
“You gotta slice open the abdomen and punch holes in both’a the lungs,” he demonstrates with a corpse in her tub. Claire learns how to get bodies to sink, where to dump them and at what times the river will take them out to sea.
Sick. But kind of funny.
Bill Camp shows up as a bigger, more menacing Italian mob boss who appreciates their efficiency and the idea of “looking out for your family.” There is nobody better at playing this sort of “I’m a reasonable man” but still murderous villain in the movies today.
But as the bodies pile up and their little empire grows, conflicts between the women kick in and “The Kitchen” becomes more meat-and-potatoes dull by the minute.
Metallic comic book dialogue, flat performances, thinly-developed empathy and underdeveloped morality pull the picture’s punches.
Only Moss stands out in the starring trio. Claire was at her breaking point, and falling in love with a hitman doesn’t fend off that psychotic break. Haddish, new to this sort of thing, basically plays one note throughout. As it’s not a funny note, Ruby starts to grate. She starts out mad, mouthy and ruthless and stays mad, mouthy and ruthless.
And McCarthy’s character is meant to be the one with the most dramatic arc, from a housewife and mother simply trying to feed her kids with the one job open to them in America’s “National Malaise,” to a woman every bit as hard as her pre-hardened compatriots. The script and her performance of it don’t carry enough pathos in Kathy to make this come off.
A two-scene cameo lets Annabella Sciorra, as the wife of Camp’s Italian mob boss, play more pathos, spine and heart than anything McCarthy or Haddish summon. She not only shows the stars up, but she hints at the movie this might have been.
The picture has an empowered subtext, and that is kept front and center even as the body count piles up. Having a woman writer-director (Andrea Berloff) certainly helped the film stay on message in that regard.
But Berloff, the screenwriter of “World Trade Center” and “Straight Outta Compton,” isn’t working so much outside her milieu as beyond her time frame. Putting pimps and hookers on the neon-lit streets is not all it takes to make a ’70s thriller.
The murders stop shocking at some point. Aside from a seedy bar or backroom scene or two, where’s the grit?
There were many moments when I wondered why a line wasn’t playing, even as I was noticing how pricey and perfect everybody’s hair, makeup and wardrobe were. Yes, they look like a million bucks. So make’em give you another take, one with some heat in it.
As the director of “Ocean’s 8” could tell you, obsessing on the characters’ appearance at the expense of drama and realism may make for a more distinctly feminine take on this well-worn genre. But it’s no substitute for tension, danger, for dramatic and sexual heat.
Berloff would have been better-served had she made Kathy’s “teachable moment” remark to her little girl her own guiding ethos.
“Pretty don’t matter. It’s just a tool women can use.”
MPAA Rating:R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp
Credits: Written and directed by Andrea Berloff, based on the comic book series. A New Line/Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:42