Is it a comedy if you don't laugh much? Or if you don't laugh at all? Yes. Especially when it's as amusing and infectiously good-natured as Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen. An overcooked cinematic soufflé set in Hamburg's bohemian subculture, this minor effort from one of Germany's ... heck, the world's ... most interesting filmmakers is a sloppy, easy-to-like farce fueled by an incredible soundtrack.
Akin, a German of Turkish descent, has made two of the most arresting films of the last five years. Head On was an emotionally gripping and sublimely romantic drama, and Edge of Heaven was a superb everything-is-connected drama that vastly outclassed anything made by cinematic showoff Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel). Taking a break from his love-death-devil trilogy (I'm intrigued by what the third installment will bring), Soul Kitchen is a funky, rollicking love letter to the director's past life as a DJ and bartender that makes no apologies for its inconsequence.
The "Soul Kitchen" in question is both a restaurant and state of mind. A low-rent grease-pit eatery run by rumpled but cuddly Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), it's far from health code-compliant, but the regulars like their beer, fried food and potato salad from a bucket. Nevertheless, even this threadbare slice of heaven is destined to come crashing down. The tax man — or woman, as the case may be — comes calling, Zinos' girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) takes off for China, his ex-con brother Ilias (Moritz Bleibtreu) shows up looking for a work-release job, a violently temperamental but brilliant chef (the amazing Birol Ünel) drives away his customers, he slips a disk in his back, and a sleazy Aryan real-estate speculator (Wotan Wilke Möhring) sics health inspectors on him in order to steal the property.
To say complications ensue would be redundant. And, by all accounts, the movie shouldn't work. Akin's plotting is slipshod and sprawling, his characters are a hair's breath away from caricature, and the jokes elicit more smiles than chuckles (and more than a few groans). Still, this smorgasbord of lo-fi delights is filled with vitality, energy and charm. Like a frantic cook, Akin whips up an unassuming ode to romance, friendship and faith in the miraculous. It's the kind of movie where everything that can go wrong does, and only the hand of fate can save Zinos and his friends from disaster. And that's OK, because Akin has infused his film with so much goodwill and humanity that you swallow every overcooked twist and turn.
Pulling the entire mess together is a sensational soundtrack that features the Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, Curtis Mayfield and an inspired concoction of blues, reggae, rock and electronica. The story may be loud, frenetic, predictable and way too broad, but it pulls you in like a dance party that won't quit. There's a sweaty, joyful vitality that's hard to resist, a real love of people and place and nightlife that revels in its messiness.
Whether its Zinos' warehouse restaurant, a local bar, cramped apartments or hip dance clubs, nothing feels calculated or contrived. Akin creates a tangible sense of place filled with real people, immersing you in their world. Sure, the bad slapstick yanks you out from time to time, but the actors are so likable and invested it's easy to forgive the movie's missteps. Bousdoukos (a former restaurant owner) is bearishly charming, countering every complication with resilient affability. Ünel is amusingly volatile, and Bleibtreu (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Run Lola Run) is every bit the star Germany has made him out to be. Plus Akin slips in a dastardly cameo by Udo Kier. How can you not like that?
Soul Kitchen will probably be dismissed by most critics as a silly misfire from a filmmaker who has shown far more skill with drama. And there's a lot to support that position. Still, Akin, even in throwaway mode, brings a unique passion and joy to this film dedicated to misfits indulging in life's pleasures. Food, dance, sex and music are his muses, and to complain that it's just too goofy to take seriously is to miss the whole damn point.
Opens Friday, Sept. 17, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.