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Soul Kitchen

A funky waterside restaurant in Hamburg! Sub-pedestrian fast food which is transformed into gastronomic magic!  By a mad genius chef!  And there's soul music!  And other kinds of music!  There's some old guy called Sokrates who parks his boat in the building and never pays rent!  The restaurant is coveted by an evil real estate developer!  And don't forget about the beautiful women!  Zenos, the main character, often says "YEAH, MAN!"   Doesn't it sound wacky?   It has to be fun, right?  Well, as it turns out, no, man.  

Given the progress of writer/director Fatih Akin's first three films  - the charmingly wack road picture, In July and the powerful dramas that followed,  Head-On and Days of Heaven - I'm inclined to blame this genial mess on co-writer and star Adam Bousdoukos.   Mr. Bousdoukos seems to have overestimated his own charm, that of Soul Kitchen's main character Zinos, or some combination thereof. 

 Soul Kitchen begins, appropriately enough, with some soul music so thick with wah-wah pedal that you would think a young Issac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield is just somewhere beyond the frame.   Mayfield will make an appearance later in the film's soundtrack.   Like virtually everything about Soul Kitchen, Zino's penchant for old school soul is never explained.   There is at least some time period consistency in his character.   He's got the long, wavy head of hair and sideburns of an early 70's rock star.   And when he first speaks to his long-suffering girlfriend Nadine from Shanghai via Skype, he says "it's like science fiction." 

Zino's eponymous restaurant is in a formerly industrial area of Hamburg, director Akin's home town.  The one consistently interesting thing about Soul Kitchen is the Hamburg locations utilized.   Zino employs a small staff, fairly young and bohemian.  He also rents part of his building to the aforementioned Sokrates, a septugenarian who looks like he just walked off the set of some Greek production of The Old Man and the Sea.  There's also a fuckup brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), out of jail on work release thanks to Zinos.      

Zino's girlfriend, Nadine, is in Shanghai, pursuing a journalistic career.   We meet her at a going away dinner, at which Zinos shows up late and acts boorish.  Completely upstaging his bad behavior is that of the restaurant's chef, Shayn (Birol Unel, star of Head-On).  He's something of a double cliche:   the short-fused culinary artiste and glowering, uber-intense German, in the grand tradition of Klaus Kinski.   After being fired on the restaurant floor for insulting a cutomer (whose cretinous request was that his gazpacho be warmed), Shayn storms out, yelling,  “You're selling what can't be sold: love, sex and the soul!"
Zinos, who must have really enjoyed his gazpacho, or whatever he was eating, hires Shayn to cook at the Soul Kitchen.   The two get off to a rough start and oblivious customers at the restaurant don't quickly warm to Shayn's creations (accustomed as they are to pizza and fries).  But eventually, as quick as you can say montage, a group of customers discover the great food, the money starts pouring in and the Soul Kitchen's kitchen is transformed into the stainless steel stuff of any chef's dreams.    

But all is not well for Zinos.  He wants to get away to join Nadine in Shanghai, an old school mate, Neumann (Wotan Wilke Mohring, looking the classic blond, Aryan heavy) has designs on the Soul Kitchen for redevelopment and poor Zino's bad back (he threw it out wrestling a warhorse of an old dishwasher, pre-kitchen makeover) has him seeking help, which he finds in the ministrations of a lovely physiotherapist, Anna.

Various subplots (which implies the existence of a  main plot, which is not necessarily the case) ensue, some theoretically wacky, others reaching for something more affecting, misfits finding their way or each other.   But like so many shaky souffles, none really stand up.  The character of Shayne drifts into the movie and then drifts back out.   He leaves his knife stuck in the front door of the Soul Kitchen through a note that reads, “The traveler hasn’t reached his destination yet.”  But if a better script told him to stick around, I'm guessing The Traveler would have done so.   Soul Kitchen might have then been a more interesting and focused film if that were the case.    

Customers of the Soul Kitchen, apres aphrodisiac
One of the film's more ridiculous flights of fancy involves the usually strict Shayne mixing in a copious amount of an aphrodisiacal spice into a dish.   Guess what happens?  Well, yes.   Lots of dancing, grinding and then everybody gets busy, even the tax woman.  It's both the best and the worst of Soul Kitchen.   Akin and Bousdoukos' story doesn't begin to possess the wit or originality to pull of the crazy twists in plot.  But Akin clearly still knows his way around a music-infused scene.   The camera circles, crowd surfs and an impressively varied soundtrack - the obvious soul, along with Eurpean flavored hip-hop, electronica, blues and more straight-ahead rock and roll - entertains in the absence of anything else.  I'm guessing the director has a very interesting iPod.  

Soul Kitchen's many tresspasses could be forgiven if all of the would-be wackniness actually delivered some laughs.   Ultimately, after the evil Neumann is hauled in by the taxman, Zinos convinces Nadine to loan him 200,000 euros to buy back the restaurant at auction,   This the same ex-girlfriend whose grandmother's funeral Zinos literally crashed, by tripping into the midst of  the ceremony, sending the coffin plummeting down into the  grave.  It's funereal physical comedy cliche #1,  but like so much of Soul Kitchen's desperate groping at tone, it's not even played for comedy. 

Of course, Zinos is able to buy back the Soul Kitchen and restore it to its former ragged glory.  Utilizing the culinary skills picked up from Shayne (in the brief, handy span of that montage), Zinos prepares a lavish dinner for the lovely Anna, who shows up, clearly smitten.  Our boy Zinos has established himself as, if nothing else, a pretty decent fellow.   But before this impressive dinner, he's done little before Anna but act like a lunatic.   Whatever happens, there will apparently always be a beautiful women to love him or bail him out.  Such is the irresistable appeal of Zinos.   Strip away all pretensions to the contrary, however crazy or heartfelt, and Soul Kitchen seems little more than an exercise in male fantasy.   

I'm a bit mystified at the positive response to Soul Kitchen.   Perhaps it's an attempt to encourage Germans (or Turkish Germans, or German Turks, as the case may be) in their attempt to be funny.   Even Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, is not immune:  "Not to warm to this movie would be churlish, and foodies will drool on demand; I recommend the shoal of silvery fish, spitting in a wide pan and awaiting its rain of lemon."  Clearly, Mr. Lane proves that going into the cinema hungry can be as dangerous as going into the supermarket on an empty stomach:  everything starts to look good.    He says that "Food movies are an acquired taste."  The problem is that Soul Kitchen isn't a food movie; there's not really that much food or cooking.  It's not a music movie.   It's not a romantic comedy.   It's not zany or screwball or even deadpan.  Like the Soul Kitchen restaurant or any good recipe, it's a lot of promising ingredients in search of a sure hand.   For the first time in his brief, promising career, Mr. Akin fails to be just that.  

In contrast to the visceral impact of his previous two features, Akin's first feature, In July was actually something of a screwball comedy.    While it also features a fairly average guy (Moritz Bleibtreu, the prodigal brother of Soul Kitchen and the bank-robbing boyfriend in Run Lola Run) pursuing an exotically beautiful young woman while an even more exotically beautiful woman chases him (again, deep in the heart of male fantasy), it's charm and originality completely carry off the flimsy premise.   It's like It Happened One Night, brought to the present day, given a couple of tabs of ecstasy and sent on an odyssey across Europe between Hamburg and Istanbul...or something like that.   Unfortunately, Soul Food is one to be missed.  But put In July and those subsequent two films, Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, in your Netflix queue.   If I had the director's ear, I might encourage him to do the same thing, paying particular attention to all the things he did so well in his previous  two dramas.   Or, to turn around the famous line from Stardust Memories:   I've seen all your films.  I especially like the earlier, unfunny ones.



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