‘Soul Kitchen’ serves comedy-lite
‘Tis the summer for dining vicariously. At the moment, Julia Roberts is ingesting her way out of a pair of designer jeans in “Eat Pray Love,’’ and if Tilda Swinton had wound up looking pregnant at the end of “I Am Love,’’ the culprit wouldn’t have been the chef she’s sleeping with but the prawns he cooked her. But for pure chaos, neither movie has anything on Fatih Akin’s “Soul Kitchen.’’
When an uppity diner at a classy waterfront restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, wants his gazpacho served warm, the chef emerges from the kitchen and plunges a knife into the offending table. He screams and explodes and is promptly expelled. Had the dissatisfied diner known his chef was Birol Ünel, the emotional volcano from Akin’s “Head-On,’’ he might have just eaten his soup cold.
Akin has taken a break from cultural politics and melodramatic tumult (his previous film was “The Edge of Heaven’’). “Soul Kitchen’’ is a ragged — all right, sloppy — group comedy that taxes neither us nor its maker. It’s roughly a tale of the brothers Kazantzakis. Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) owns and operates Soul Kitchen, a greasy fry shack in a vast old warehouse on the Elbe River. He’s a shaggy, hot-blooded, stressed-out guy.
Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) is slicker and cheesier. He’s just begun a prison day-release program contingent on his securing a job. Zinos wears a gold chain and a cheap suit. Everything he does is big and tacky and obvious. He’s a walking wink. But soon enough, he’s managing his brother’s restaurant. By managing, I mean flirting with the lone waitress (Anna Bederke) and haphazardly commandeering the set of turntables he had stolen from a real deejay.
The initial Soul Kitchen regulars appear to be a smattering of dockworkers. An old man rents a room in the building. His name is Socrates, and from the ancient looks of him, who are we to argue? You can’t believe a space this ripe for hipsters is as empty as it is. Then you see the food, which improves a great deal after Zinos hires Ünel’s lunatic chef. A band starts practicing in the space. Their friends show up, drink, and eat. Before long, Akin is throwing around Scorsese-esque shots of Bousdoukos counting handfuls of cash in astonishment.
Akin composed the screenplay with Bousdoukos, and they’ve overwritten almost everything. The restaurant is having tax trouble. Zinos’s blond girlfriend (Pheline Roggan) wants him to come to Shanghai, where she’s just moved, and he can’t quite get to the airport. An old school friend of Zinos (Wotan Wilke Möhring) is scheming to buy the building out from under him. Zinos has a bad back. There’s a funeral disaster, an apartment fire, a break-in, as well as a sartorial saving grace that can only be called deus ex shirt button.
This is all to say that “Soul Kitchen’’ is not the work of tremendous sophistication — be it emotional, narrative, or social — that Akin’s other movies have been. It’s a great European director working in a less ambitious gear. This is a party, and you’re either having a good time or wondering when Akin is going to get down to business. But for an hour and a half, fun is the business. The movie flirts with desperation and strains for comedy, but its heart and soul come naturally. To prove it, there’s a vast orgy set to Curtis Mayfield’s “Get Down.’’
Bousdoukos and Bleibtreu give the movie great comic feeling. They’re all flailing hands, popped eyes, dropped jaws, and charismatically libidinal. The movie’s enthusiasm for American R&B music and its harried, hardworking sense of humor has its Hollywood cousin in those Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby capers from the mid-1970s. “Soul Kitchen’’ feels like a German way of saying “Uptown Saturday Night.’’