'The Kitchen' serves up a mess

Courtesy PhotoElisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish, and Melissa McCarthy star in 'The Kitchen.' 

On paper, “The Kitchen” seems like a film that should absolutely work, even the kind of film to get excited about when you know almost nothing about it. It’s got a great, ensemble cast, a cool period setting, a crime drama hook, and an acclaimed comic book series as its source material. All of these ingredients should, in theory, come together to form something that’s at the very least interesting, and at the most a fantastic new crime drama.

Sadly, despite those ingredients, “The Kitchen” fails to cook up anything particularly compelling, and the result is a disjointed, unwieldy mess that speeds up when it should slow down and crawls when it should be running.

Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are all wives to members of the Irish mob in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the late 1970s, united by their dependence on the criminal system to which their husbands have pledged their lives. When all three of their husbands are arrested during a failed robbery one night, the wives find that money is tight and sympathy for their plight is low even among members of their family, including matriarch Helen (Margo Martindale).

When Kathy discovers that local businesses aren’t getting the protection and care that they pay the mob for, she and Ruby hatch a plot to go into business for themselves and begin their own branching criminal enterprise, with Claire joining in after growing tired of a world that seemingly just wants to batter her. Together the three women quickly gain loyal followers, including an eccentric enforcer named Gabriel (Domnhall Gleeson), and their reputation among the city’s criminals grows. As they soon discover, though, the lifestyle they’ve taken from their husbands comes with the price, and that price gets higher every time they get more successful.

On the surface, this all seems like it should absolutely work as a film, particularly with three such likeable and acclaimed leads right there on the poster to carry the piece. And indeed, on the surface it does seem to work. Director Andrea Berloff kicks off the film with style and energy, not wasting a moment in getting right to the meat of the story, but as “The Kitchen” picks up steam it also begins to lose direction. Berloff remains a solid visual stylist throughout, but in an attempt to cover all the ground the film needs to cover to build to its twisty conclusion, it starts to fall apart.

Whole sequences that could help with a hint of character development are glossed over in montages. Shots of characters hanging out in bars or walking the streets are inserted seemingly at random, with no added context or characterization. One minute Claire is a reluctant participant in the operation, in it for the apparent protection and camaraderie alone, and the next she’s fully unleashed as perhaps its most ruthless member. One minute the characters are working together just fine, and the next they’re at each other’s throats.

All the disjointed meandering the film does can be attributed to two key details. One: It’s adapted from a comic book series with more material than a film can contain, so Berloff’s adaptation has to pick and choose and sometimes cripples itself in the process. Two: Much of the plot is ultimately geared toward setting up the reveal of the film’s final act, which it fails to pull off in part because it’s not quite foreshadowed enough and in part because the moments that are foreshadowing are often clumsy and too lackluster to stick in the mind of the viewer.

That said, the cast remains a compelling ensemble of actors, even amid a formulaic and often crawling plot. McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss are such a great team when things are clicking that you really wish they were in a better movie, and character actors like Martindale, James Badge Dale, and Bill Camp are fun enough that you wish they’d stick around a little longer. Sadly, the film never seems to know quite what to do with them.

“The Kitchen” has, if you’ll pardon the metaphor one more time, so many ingredients to make something compelling and thrilling, but the ones it doesn’t squander are seemingly chopped to pieces so thoroughly that there’s nothing left to really chew on. This film might have been something special once, but that’s not the version we saw.

‘The Kitchen’ is in theaters August 9.