Review: “Soul Kitchen” Kinda Tasty, But Full of Empty Calories

"Soul Kitchen" finds writer-director Fatih Akin going in a very different direction form the heavy dramas that have made him famous, but with his love of American culture in full effect. Despite some nice set pieces and strong performances, it might have more accurately been called "Soul Kitchen Sink."

The film stars Adam Bousdoukos as Zinos Kazantsakis, the owner/manager of Soul Kitchen, a restaurant in Hamburg. With his girlfriend heading off to China, he decides to leave the place in the hands of his prison-furloughed brother and a temperamental chef, all with predictably disastrous results.

Fans of Akin will recognize any number of faces in this new film, starting with Bousdoukos as Zinos. Bousdoukos, who was inspiration for and co-writer of the film, is handsome and likable in that shaggy dog kind of way, but he lacks the star quality you need to carry a film -- it's all too easy to take your eyes off him. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of Moritz Bleibtreu as Zinos' brother Illias and Birol Unel as Shayn Weiss, the chef. Both actors draw you in with very different flavors of magnetism -- Bleibtreu as a "your mother warned you about" hustler, Unel as a mad genius, You're much more interested in their exploits than anything Zinos is doing.

While the film is loaded with great characters and amusing moments, it just feels a bit sloppy. Pratfalls, orgies, bungled Skype sex, cops tossing aside evidence as though it were trash... There are several times when Akin lets his story run too far, but at the film's core is a group of folks you can identify with and root for. Their hearts are in the right place, making it easier to go along for the ride.

When Akin agreed to direct a segment for the film "New York, I Love You," he wasn't kidding about his ardor for the city and the country at large. The restaurant, named after a song from the Doors' self-titled debut, is in the neighborhood of Wilhelmsburg, which, though an actual part of Hamburg, is clearly a nod to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to America's most loved/reviled hot-spot for food and music. The soundtrack is full of classic soul, featuring Quincy Jones, Ruth Brown and others. A poster for a night of dancing DJed by Roots drummer ?Love can be seen hanging on the wall, a Mitch Albom book is prominently displayed in another scene... Akin stops just short of saying the pledge of allegiance.

"Soul Kitchen" is a fun, light movie, that occasionally makes the mistake of not taking itself seriously enough, reducing itself to broad, lowbrow humor that doesn't fit within the context of the rest of the film. And the ending of the story is oddly tidy for a story that's so all over the place. It should've been better than it is, but it's still enjoyable. 

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