If you doubt that August is the boneyard for movies too poor to release in other months, here’s “The Kitchen,” an addled and actively unpleasant crime comedy-drama with a high-profile cast and a mean streak a mile wide. Based on a limited-edition comic book and completed in July 2018, the movie’s been sitting on the shelf until enough people are on vacation to not see it.
The dramatic hook is similar to last year’s “Widows,” with an Irish mob twist. Three gangsters’ wives have to band together and figure out how to survive in late-’70s Hell’s Kitchen in New York when their men go to prison for a three-year stretch after a botched liquor-store robbery. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is a nice Catholic girl and mother of two whose husband, Jimmy (Brian D’arcy James), is the go-along-get-along type. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) was whisked out of Harlem by hot-tempered Kevin (James Badge Dale) and is loathed by her mother-in-law, the matriarchal Helen (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) has been a long-time punching bag for Rob (Jeremy Bobb) and is happy to see him go.
With little money coming in from the neighborhood boss (Myk Watford), the ladies decide to take over the Hell’s Kitchen protection racket. This they do not only with astonishing ease but with the delighted acceptance of the local shop owners, who want to pay a monthly fee to chase off the homeless folks and the people “not from around here.”
That’s right — “The Kitchen” is the first pro-extortion movie.
Not to mention pro-murder, pro-bribery, pro-police-corruption — let’s just say pro-crime. As the three leads take over the local mob and move out to claim construction contracts in the adjoining Jewish neighborhood — and as Claire discovers her inner hit woman and learns to carve up bodies with the aid of the shaggy enforcer/love interest Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) — the tone stumbles between comedy and you-go-gals drama, the characters’ rise to power presented as empowerment.
This might be fun, but it isn’t. Some problems: The plot makes no sense, since Kathy, Ruby, and Claire have no real leverage to keep them from being quickly knocked off before they get started. The death of innocents — an Orthodox Jewish jeweler, a federal agent, both with bullets in the head — sours any sympathy you might have for these queen-pins of the Kitchen. The dialogue is drab and the direction is worse: Andrea Berloff, making her behind-the-camera debut after writing scripts for “World Trade Center” and “Straight Outta Compton,” has no eye for visually structuring a scene and no sense of cutting-room rhythm.
What Berloff appears to be after is a Martin Scorsese movie on the cheap. The soundtrack is filled with period rock songs from Heart, Fleetwood Mac, and an inappropriately placed (and pretty awful) version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Melanie. The overall vibe is a sludgy mix of dark comedy, deadpan evil doings, and Kitchen-sink melodrama. There’s only one Scorsese, though, and he ain’t here.
A few pleasures glimmer in the murk. Gleeson is poised, watchful, and sexy as the psychopathic Gabriel. Martindale is a ripely foul-mouthed Ma Barker/Livia Soprano type, even if she’s allowed to oversell it. Bill Camp owns his scenes as a placid Italian godfather watching events unfold from Brooklyn. And look fast for Annabella Sciorra as the godfather’s wife and imagine the career she might have had if Harvey Weinstein hadn’t violently intervened.
The three leads do their best to fight upstream against the nonsense. Haddish holds her own in her first major dramatic role, while McCarthy vainly tries to build Kathy’s incongruities into a coherent character. Moss doesn’t worry about the contradictions and just wallows in Claire’s amorality, but at least someone’s having a good time. Otherwise “The Kitchen” isn’t just a poorly made movie. It’s a screwed-up one.
Written and directed by Andrea Berloff, based on the DC/Vertigo comic. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Margo Martindale, Common. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 102 minutes. R (violence, language throughout, some sexual content)