Soul Kitchen (IFC Films, NR)

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The characters truly care for one another, seemingly more as a family than as co-workers, and each actor conveys that bond.

Soul Kitchen, the latest film from director Fatih Akin, is a warm, charming ensemble comedy set in a restaurant. The characters are genuine, everyday folks that we can relate to. We have no problem caring about the characters because we can see our co-workers and ourselves in them.
The film focuses on Zino (Adam Bousdoukos), who lives in Hamburg, Germany, where he’s the owner of Soul Kitchen. It’s a greasy spoon kind of place that serves schnitzel and french fries to his loyal customers. All of a sudden, his easygoing life becomes a bit more hectic. His girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) moves to China, and his brother Illias (Mortiz Bleibtreu, best known as Manni in Run Lola Run) needs a job in order to get work leave from prison. One top of that, Zino badly injures his back and is being hounded by tax agents.
Zino yearns for Nadine in her absence and decides he wants move to China to be with her. He hires maniac executive chef Shayn (Briol Unel) to help run the kitchen, but Shayn’s fancy new approach to the menu brings in a new type of clientele. He also hires Illias to be the manager while he is away. Just as Zino thinks his troubles have been alleviated, he discovers that Nadine has found a new love and Illias has gambled away the deed to his beloved restaurant.
Some workplace comedies tend to be episodic in nature, getting most of their laughs from the situations or dialogue, while the plot barely follows any kind of story arc. Others rely on over-the-top characters to keep the audience entertained. Soul Kitchen is different because its humor is mostly understated and sensible. There are some outrageously funny moments in the film, such as when Zino crashes the burial of Nadine’s grandmother in a jealous rage, or scenes depicting Shayn’s deranged behavior in the kitchen. But this film finds most of its humor in everyday things that could happen to anyone.
The cast fits together very well—it’s as if they have actually worked together before and have known each other for a while. The characters truly care for one another, seemingly more as a family than as co-workers, and each actor conveys that bond. Bousdoukos and Bleibtreu are both very effective in their roles as uneasy siblings. The standout performance, however, comes from Unel as the berserk chef Shayn. His character is like Gordon Ramsay of Hell’s Kitchen on a really bad day, while on a meth binge. Legendary German actor Udo Kier, perhaps best known in America for starring in Andy Warhol’s Dracula, plays a small but memorable part as a greedy land developer.
Director Akin (The Edge of Heaven), whose previous work has been rather weighty and serious, lightens the mood a bit with this film, which he co-wrote with Bousdoukos. The film was a smash at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, where it was screened in competition. Though the Golden Lion award went to the war drama Lebanon, Soul Kitchen picked up the Special Jury Prize and the Young Cinema Award for Best Film. | Justin Tucker


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