Exciting young German-Turkish director Fatih Akin makes movies about the harmonious—and sometimes not-so-harmonious—ways that cultures merge or collide. But he’s a populist at heart, not given to reinventing genre films so much as invigorating them with rakish humor, boundless intensity, and a great feeling for character. In July and the masterful Head-On were smart cross-cultural twists on the road movie and the romantic comedy, respectively, and Akin’s last feature, The Edge Of Heaven, was an everything-is-connected drama done right. Now Akin returns with Soul Kitchen, perhaps his most broadly entertaining effort to date, the filmic equivalent of a big, shaggy bearded collie, eager for people to scruff its floppy ears. And a little slobbering aside, it’s just as irresistible.
As the Greek-born proprietor of an American-themed grease pit in Hamburg, Germany, Adam Bousdoukos plays a slightly more put-together variation on the ne’er-do-well hero of Head-On. Both are tagged as losers, and not unfairly, but both also reveal a capacity for change. Bousdoukos’ restaurant attracts a few regulars who happily feast on powder-packet soups and deep-fried fish fillets, but the business is also attracting the wrong kind of interest from health inspectors and tax collectors. With his girlfriend (Pheline Roggan) heading to Shanghai, Bousdoukos hastily works to reinvent his business and leave it to other hands so he can join her, but his new hires are volatile, to say the least. His ex-con brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) wants to manage the place, but isn’t accustomed to working, and his new chef (Birol Ünel) has a temperament in the kitchen that would make Gordon Ramsay blush.
To this already bustling ensemble, Akin adds a plucky waitress who has eyes for Bousdoukos’ brother and a cantankerous barfly who lives on the property, as well as a raucous soundtrack that includes everything from Kool & The Gang and The Isley Brothers to contemporary blues, reggae, rock, and electronica. Soul Kitchen plays everything big and loud—and sometimes too doggedly conventional—but it’s the rare example of a crowd-pleaser made without cynicism or calculation. It’s about a protagonist who strains to make everyone happy, and it does the same without breaking a sweat.