From left, Elizabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish play mob wives who take over for their jailed husbands in “The Kitchen.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

From left, Elizabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish play mob wives who take over for their jailed husbands in “The Kitchen.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

If you can’t stand confused movies, stay out of ‘The Kitchen’

This yarn about three mob wives circa 1978 can’t find a balance between ‘women’s lib’ and violence.

There must be a strategy in casting two comedic powerhouses as the leads in a violent gangland saga. At the moment I can’t think of what it is.

Nevertheless, here are Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, running numbers and ordering hits on their rivals.”The Kitchen,” based on a graphic novel by Ollie Masters, finds a rationale for women to take over prime Manhattan turf in the late 1970s.

When their husbands go to jail for extended stays, economic realities overtake Cathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and their pal Claire (Elisabeth Moss, from “The Handmaid’s Tale”). Their husbands work for an Irish mobster called Little Jackie (Myk Watford), who’s getting stingy about supporting the wives left behind.

Could this trio of inexperienced but street-smart women run the rackets as well as any man, especially a man named Little Jackie? Of course they could.

“The Kitchen” (for Hell’s Kitchen) tries to get a little Scorsese-style bop in its quick-moving rhythm, with quiet domestic scenes punctuated by point-blank ambushes and patient tutorials on how to chop up a body in a bathtub.

Writer-director Andrea Berloff doesn’t ignore humor, using the performers’ skills to play some violent scenes for laughs. That’s a delicate balance, and the movie doesn’t always nail it.

Some of the criminal empire-building is entertaining to watch, especially when the trio is called into the presence of an Italian Mafioso (Bill Camp). For him, a business opportunity is more important than male chauvinism.

Of the three leads, Moss comes off best, burning with resentment against her abusive husband (Jeremy Bobb) while falling for a kinder, more attractive killer (Domhnall Gleeson, from “Ex Machina”).

McCarthy’s character is the voice of reason, which means she’ll only put out a contract on a rival when it’s absolutely necessary. Haddish looks constrained, as though wanting to improvise but stuck with the written dialogue.

You get the feeling the movie needs to be a bigger gangland epic, or maybe a miniseries. Some characters cry out for more screen time, notably Ruby’s fearsome mother-in-law — as played by the great Margo Martindale, this lady comes across as an old-school power broker, with a backstory that must be fierce.

The source comic book undoubtedly had room to explore its territory (as did the British miniseries that spawned last year’s somewhat similar “Widows,” a movie that also felt pared-down). At 102 minutes, “The Kitchen” doesn’t really have time to breathe.

There’s a strong message throughout that although our heroines break into the crime biz for economic reasons, they rather like their first taste of women’s lib, as it was known in 1978. That this empowerment comes with a high body count is something “The Kitchen” hasn’t figured out how to resolve. The result is a hurried crime spree with too many unanswered questions.

“The Kitchen” (1½ stars)

Three mob wives in 1978 Hell’s Kitchen decide to run the rackets themselves when their husbands are sent to jail. This gangland spree benefits from the intriguing casting of the leads (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss), but feels rushed and somewhat confused about its mix of emancipation and violence. With Domhnall Gleeson.

Rating: R, for violence, language

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