Tiffany Haddish. Elisabeth Moss. Melissa McCarthy. It’s easy to imagine a world in which you can’t name a more iconic trio. In the right hands, the possibilities would be limitless—drama, comedy, genre, you name it. If Greta Gerwig had cast them in her upcoming Little Women, the announcement would’ve broken the Internet. If Paul Thomas Anderson built a Three Stooges-esque movie around them, forget about it. Let Christopher Nolan send them to space, let Peter Jackson send them to Middle Earth, let Claire Denis send them anywhere. Hell, you needn’t think big or prestigious; I’d pay $16.95 to watch the three of them mime for 90 minutes, eat cereal, dance the Cha Cha, do something with Michael Bay, whatever.
Playing 1970s Hell’s Kitchen mob wives-turned-mobsters certainly falls under that umbrella. Or it did until The Kitchen came along, anyway. This Andrea Berloff (best known for writing 2005’s World Trade Center and 2016’s Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the Vertigo comic-book series, in theory, is that rare Hollywood movie we’ve all been waiting for: It puts three of America’s most dynamic actresses together, and not for a remake of a male-led classic! But chief among the reasons The Kitchen is disappointing is that it might as well be.
Despite some significant plot and character deviances, The Kitchen basically amounts to Scorsese pastiche. This is rough-around-the-edges ‘70s New York—albeit an Irish neighborhood—where bodies get dumped in the East River, men beat their wives, and there’s never a shortage of classic rock standards to set the mood (at this point, directors who use “Carry On My Wayward Son” or “The Chain” should be stripped of their DGA membership). The main departure, of course, is that here the mistreated wives shoot (and think) their way into the foreground. When their rotten husbands (played by James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb, and Brian d'Arcy James) go to jail, Ruby (Haddish), Claire (Moss), and Kathy (McCarthy) take their places. When they’re forced to fend for themselves, they learn to fight and claw, and they take control of their neighborhood and their destinies.
Though these wives encounter their share of mishaps along the way, it turns out to be rather easy for them to do their husbands’ work better than their husbands. For the most part, the men in The Kitchen are violent cane toads—lazy, easily provoked, and utterly incompetent. The Hell’s Kitchen mobsters have a meeting place in the back of a bar, and in it they’ve actually hung a sign that says “Danger: Men Drinking.” You get the sense they find it clever; you also get the sense that they’ve caused a few gnarly drinking accidents, and that maybe it’s a literal warning? Regardless, when the ladies make a run at the neighborhood, they don’t need to pull off some genius scheme, a la Widows, to outdo the men; they just need to execute the mob fundamentals: diligently collect dues, whack the right people, actually make the effort to clean a defaced store’s window.
Berloff’s rendering of mob men—but really, men in general—as cartoonish bumblers easily outdone by a group of average women could have made for a sharp and prescient revision to the mob genre. But rather than use her impressive artillery (Haddish and McCarthy, in particular) to satirize those movies, Berloff mixes a bad imitation with an over-earnest rebuke. “I think we’re all done getting knocked around,” the ladies agree—one of many instances where Berloff spells out something even the dumbest guy in the room already understood.
My favorite moment in The Kitchen was a small one. In bed, Tiffany Haddish gives a man who’s not her husband the sort of one eyebrow-raised, side-eyed look that could mean a few different things (You think you’re staying the night... or Damn, I didn’t know you had it in you), but that could only be doled out by Haddish. It made me laugh. Though none of these actresses disappears into their characters, other than that look, they also don’t get to show off what they do well. Moss is at her hammiest, McCarthy is at her least hammy, and Haddish just seems stifled.
You can see the Oscar-aspiring intention behind the performances. But there’s no inspiration. The Kitchen montages its way through most of the granular details of mob life, to such a degree that I doubted Berloff’s interest in this world. Though the film’s not based on a true story, it’s got the sterile look of a middling biopic. The point is ultimately the point. Which might be well and good—we should at least be able to see women triumph in art—if it didn’t come at the expense of Haddish, Moss, and McCarthy. The mob, it turns out has one tenet that’s worth adhering to: Look out for your own.
Originally Appeared on GQ