There’s so much talent in The Kitchen, and so much of it wasted; that’s kind of all you can think about for most of writer-director Andrea Berloff’s debut — a girls-can-do-crime-too story that can’t quite decide if it wants to be a drama or a caper, and just ends up settling for some silly, sour place in between.
Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss are three women in circa-1978 New York City without much agency, or even men they can count on not to get popped for petty robberies. McCarthy’s Kathy seems to have the best of the bad husbands: a little bit of a bumbler, maybe, but a decent-enough provider and dad to their two kids.
Haddish’s Ruby has her own struggles as maybe the only black Mrs. in Irish-to-the-bone Hell’s Kitchen — and her mother-in-law (Margo Martindale) is clearly a real peach, if a peach wore a mail-order wig and a permanent Joe Pesci snarl. But it’s Moss’s Claire who pulls the worst straw; her guy is an unrepentant wife-beater, and an emotional bully too.
All of this information is delivered with nothing like subtlety within the first ten minutes, so it’s hardly surprising when all three guys knock over a liquor store, beat up the FBI agent who tries to stop them, and are immediately sent down for four years in prison. (Only four?)
Without preamble or any known previous experience, the three women decide to team up and take over the local protection racket to earn money while their men are away; when the neighborhood kingpin objects, they just flip their feathered bangs and keep collecting.
There’s so little logic or realism in the events that follow that it almost seems unfair to linger on them too long, but the stranger thing is that Berloff has three such vivid actresses at her disposal and then chooses to handicap them with such clumsy, half-dimensional characters.
Even with the hackneyed dialogue and disjointed plot turns, though, their innate likeability keeps breaking through. McCarthy, who showed how fantastically she could pivot to more serious roles in last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me — and landed a well-deserved Oscar nod — is the heartbeat of the movie, a sort of mama bear in Charlie’s Angels hair.
Haddish never seems completely comfortable with her flinty, guard-up Ruby, but Moss does what she can with Claire, who vacillates between injured defiance and something that verges on Bonnie-and-Clyde sociopathy when she meets her new match, the trigger-happy Vietnam vet Gabriel (Star Wars‘ Domnhall Gleeson).
By the time the script wends its way toward a bullet-riddled finale, with the Feds closing in and the women’s alliances crumbling, you don’t really care about the heat anymore; you just want to get out of The Kitchen. C–