Soul Kitchen, comedy, not rated, in German and Greek with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles Director Fatih Akin, born in Germany to Turkish parents, experienced a meteoric rise on the world-cinema stage mainly because of his last two feature films: 2004’s Head-On and 2007’s The Edge of Heaven. The former is harrowing and difficult; the latter, sprawling and inventive. Both films have something to say. For his follow-up, Soul Kitchen, Akin takes a break from conveying important messages and simply has a bite to eat.
In America’s foreign-film market, restaurant-based comedies are like Adam Sandler films: they are the easiest possible sell. You take a cartoonishly exaggerated hero (here, the shaggy Adam Bousdoukos as Zinos Kazantsakis, owner of dine-and-dance joint Soul Kitchen) and set him against a cartoonishly exaggerated villain (Wotan Wilke Möhring as hiss-worthy real-estate developer Thomas Neumann). Toss in an eccentric supporting cast, include a heavy helping of close-up shots of food preparation, stir in a lively soundtrack, add a dash of sex, and voilà! You have the makings of a foreign-film hit.
But my aim is not to be cynical. The death rattle is sounding on the American market for movies with pesky little words on the bottom of the screen, and one learns to appreciate foreign-film success wherever it may be found. Soul Kitchen, while delving into many clichés and an extensive supply of cheap gags, still manages to win you
over. It’s a reminder that just because a genre’s conventions are well worn doesn’t mean there isn’t entertainment value to be found in them. And just because a film isn’t challenging doesn’t mean it isn’t personal.
Consider Soul Kitchen’s genesis: Akin and Bousdoukos have been close friends since childhood, and they collaborated on the screenplay as a vehicle to convey some of Bousdoukos’ adventures in the restaurant business. The movie has the warm feel of friends getting together for a night of dinner and music, dancing and drinks, jokes and stories. It’s playful in the right places, and downplays the painful moments for laughs.
Bousdoukos serves as a charismatic protagonist. His Kazantsakis is a kind man who constantly looks out for his loved ones during difficult times. Whether it’s because Bousdoukos overacts or because Kazantsakis is overdrawn, the character has a short fuse — he’s impulsive, and disagreements easily turn to random shouting matches. Refer back to the Sandler comparison if you wish, but Kazantsakis is the rare hero who is rarely passive but always vulnerable. He lurches through the film with a bad back, hunched over and gritting his teeth as his life crumbles around him.
His laundry list of problems seems to grow with each passing minute. His lover Nadine (Pheline Roggan) leaves for China, where her missives soon seem suspicious. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), a reformed thief with a prison record, needs help getting on his feet and changing his behavior, and he faces a relapse at every turn. The restaurant is struggling. The new chef (Birol Ünel) is a tyrant. The health inspectors and tax officers are knocking at his door. And popping up from time to time is Neumann (say the name like Jerry Seinfeld does: Hello … Newman!) with offers to buy the place out from under him.
You can guess how things play out. Events grow darker and more desperate for Kazantsakis and his friends and family, until it seems that there is no way things could possibly turn out well. And then some last-ditch Hail Mary antics start building the momentum toward redemption, comeuppance, and a happy ending with a neat bow tied on top. The cast is strong
Hugs and misses: Pheline Roggan and Adam Bousdoukos