PLOT In Hell's Kitchen during the 1970s, three women begin running the local Irish mafia.
CAST Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss
RATED R (violence, language)
BOTTOM LINE A misguided crime drama that mistakes vile behavior for female empowerment.
You know those boomtowns in Westerns that are always being terrorized by outlaws? Every so often, a few bad hombres ride in, shake down the shopkeepers, rob a few people and shoot anyone who speaks up. In "The Kitchen," that town is the Hell's Kitchen of the 1970s, where the townsfolk could desperately use a hero.
The problem is, this movie thinks the bad guys are the heroes.
Make that heroines, because "The Kitchen" is mainly selling the novel sight of three women who appoint themselves crime bosses of the neighborhood. It's also selling the counter-casting of two endearing comedic actresses, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, as ruthless, hard-bitten types. All of that speaks well of Hollywood's new push for gender equity, and it's good to see a female writer-director, Andrea Berloff ("Straight Outta Compton"), taking the reins of a major movie. Nevertheless, its clever title — an ironic nod to old ideas about a woman's place — is the best thing "The Kitchen" has to offer.
If you saw last year's "Widows," about women who take over a crime ring after their husbands die, you'll recognize some glaring similarities to "The Kitchen," about women who take over a crime ring after their husbands go to jail. McCarthy plays Kathy Brennan and Haddish plays Ruby O'Carroll, who both married into the Irish mob; Elisabeth Moss plays Claire Walsh, a battered wife who isn't completely sorry when all their husbands are hauled away.
With cash dwindling, the women have no choice: They'll have to handle their husbands' protection racket themselves. Cue the montage of Kathy and her crew triumphantly counting the money they've extorted from local delis and nail salons. And if you think that's a weird notion of empowerment, wait'll you see what the ladies do to an uncooperative Hasidic Jew. Meanwhile, Claire hooks up with a handsome assassin, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), and discovers her inner sociopath.
Based on a DC Vertigo comic, "The Kitchen" wants desperately to be another "Goodfellas" or "The Godfather." It isn't even close. The direction and performances are wobbly (McCarthy wears an unchanging expression of anxiety, while Haddish projects nothing but nastiness) and the script is a jumble of mob-movie tropes. James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" plays as the movie's opening song, but it'll take more than that to make us root for these women.