With talented comediennes like Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish among the leads, you might suspect that a movie called “The Kitchen” might be a wacky farce about cooking. Nothing could be further from the truth: the title of Andrea Berloff’s movie refers to Hell’s Kitchen—the Manhattan neighborhood, not the TV show—and the women are the wives of Irish mob thugs who have to fend for themselves when, in 1978, their husbands are sent off to jail after being caught robbing a liquor store. They do so by taking over the gang’s leadership, eliminating the male competition in the process.
The premise, which recalls that of last year’s “Widows,” derives from an edgy comic book series, and so it’s not surprising that it’s played like trashy pulp, with grim humor, plenty of stereotyping, and lots of surprisingly explicit carnage, along with a faddishly feminist slant: but it can be enjoyed as smoothly executed low-rent junk.
When their hubbies Kevin O’Carroll (James Badge Dale), Jimmy Brennan (Brian d’Arcy Dale) and Rob Walsh (Jeremy Jeremy Bobb) are sent to the slammer, their respective wives Ruby (Haddish), Kathy (McCarthy) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) expect to be taken care of financially by the new gang boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford), Kevin’s brother, but he fails to provide them even with rent money. The three get no support from crusty old mob matriarch Helen O’Carroll (Margo Martindale), a miserable racist who has always loathed the idea of Kevin marrying a black woman.
Ruby encourages the other two hard-pressed women to take matters into their own hands by taking over the neighborhood protection racket Little Jackie is mismanaging. Kathy is initially reluctant, but the need to feed her two kids proves compelling, while Claire, accustomed to being beaten by her brutal husband, is understandably scared but reluctantly goes along, especially after she’s saved from Jackie by handsome gang enforcer Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), returning from a stint on the lam. The women take over the business with ridiculous ease, and then are invited into a partnership—also rather absurdly—by nearby Italian Mafia boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), a remarkably genteel sort.
No gentility is found in the women, who increasingly resort to violence to achieve their ends. When one among a group of Hassidic Jews refuses to submit to their pressure to add their construction workers to a major job, he winds up with a bullet in his head. Gabriel is their first lieutenant, but he also introduces Claire, with whom he takes up romantically, to the joys of dismembering bodies in the bathtub, and they also hire some of Jackie’s old cronies. Kathy remains the most averse to strong-arm tactics, though she embraces them when necessary; Claire, on the other hand, becomes positively bloodthirsty, and Ruby isn’t far behind, taking special pleasure in dealing with Mr. O’Carroll.
Problems arise, however, when their husbands are unexpectedly released from prison early and think they should resume their roles in the organization, shunting their wives into the background. It’s here that the message of female empowerment, already none too subtly presented, gets a blazing spotlight, and the violence quotient goes up exponentially. There are also some double-crosses and supposedly shocking twists, and though in the end there are defections from the crew, the beat, shall we say, goes on.
McCarthy, Haddish and Moss carry off their parts well enough, but except for Kathy, who has to deal with a disapproving father (Wayne Duvall) and an abiding affection for her none-too-capable husband, their characters are thinly drawn and played accordingly. Gleeson delivers a simmering vibe as a guy whose cal, demeanor can go ballistic, and Camp and Martindale are both, as always, easy to watch even when not given much to do. The actors playing the array of macho villains all succeed in making the nasty fellows they’re playing worthy of their fates in the coarsest possible way.
Shane Valentino’s production design and Maryse Alberti’s cinematography decently capture the period details, and though Christopher Tellefsen’s editing slides over details overmuch, though the fault probably lies more in Berloff’s script than the cutting. The comic book series ran eight issues, and perhaps the feature format couldn’t quite accommodate it.
In the right frame of mind, one can extract some fun from “The Kitchen,” provided that you can deal with some stomach-churning gore. But the movie’s tawdry comic-book roots are inescapable.