After his last two brilliant and emotionally demanding feature-length fiction films, Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, it’s nice to see Fatih Akın kick back and relax, but I suspect he enjoyed making Soul Kitchen more than I enjoyed watching it.
Soul Kitchen shares a lot of ingredients with Head-On and The Edge of Heaven: All three have a respectful but nuanced view of family relationships (family ties in an Akin movie are as likely to strangle as to save you); a bone-deep understanding of the cross-cultural pollination that has transformed Europe and Akin’s own family (his parents emigrated to Germany from Turkey); and a strong score, flavored by techno in The Edge of Heaven, punk in Head-On, soul music here, and traditional Turkish music in them all. They also use a lot of the same actors, most notably Head-On star Birol Ünel, who has a scene-stealing supporting role in Soul Kitchen as a temperamental chef, and the film’s co-writer and star Adam Bousdoukos, who had a cameo in Head-On.
But this time, Akin dials down the emotional intensity and amps up the fun to write a lighthearted love letter to his native Hamburg’s hip Wilhelmsburg section (no, New Yorkers, the name isn’t part of the joke). Bousdoukos plays Zinos, a shaggy-haired mensch whose Soul Kitchen restaurant is a magnet for mooches, musicians, and impromptu all-night parties. The communal Alice’s Restaurant feel to the place and its neo-hippie owner give the movie an appealing energy that’s boosted by the funky music and propulsive cuts, though the balance tips from trippy to tipsy when the filmmakers play with a fisheye lens.
Soul Kitchen wants to be a light comedy about a good guy who gets a series of bad breaks, but uneven pacing and too many too-thin plot threads make it feel episodic and disjointed. Too many situations are too clearly included just to set up musty bits, like the funeral where Zinos knocks over the coffin, or the breath mints an evil capitalist is forever popping into his mouth, which inevitably lead to a plot-altering sight gag. We don’t see enough of the chef, since a subplot about how he revamps the restaurant’s lousy menu peters out halfway through the film. We see too much of the greedy false friend (Wotan Wilke Möhring, who looks like Anderson Cooper’s evil twin) who’s plotting to buy out Zinos’s restaurant, and of the old man who rents space from Zinos but never pays up (Akin regular Demir Gökgöl). Then there’s the subplot about Zinos’s convict brother and the three love stories—at least one too many to care about—involving Zinos or his brother. And there’s Zinos’s slipped disk, which provides some laughs for a while but eventually hurt me almost as much as it did him.
Comedy is hard, and Akins hasn’t made a funny movie since film school, as he told an Australian paper. Maybe he just needs a little practice to get as good at comedy laced with drama as he is at the reverse.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.