The idea of uber-serious Turkish-German director Fatih Akin (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven) making a breezy comedy about a bunch of daffy characters who run a restaurant seems about as likely as Quentin Tarantino directing a Miley Cyrus musical.
Yet there's a surprising continuity between Soul Kitchen and Akin's earlier grimmer works: the
Hamburg setting, the sexy grunge-chic milieu, the vivacious ensemble cast, the concern with emigre communities and the celebration of life-enhancing multiculturalism.
Indeed, Soul Kitchen is an upbeat populist take on the theme he's been developing in the films that have won many prizes on the festival circuit - that in a world in which migration, movement and globalism has torn apart families and traditional communities, new bonds must be formed.
This time around Akin shifts his attention from displaced German Turks to Greeks in the form of a pair of mismatched brothers - one hard-working, the other a criminal on day release - who form an unlikely alliance to run a restaurant inside a former warehouse on the Hamburg docks.
Zinos (co-writer Adam Bousdoukos) has been making a modest living serving up stodgy fare to the locals, a heart-clogging menu of schnitzels, fish fingers, frozen pizzas and macaroni and cheese.
When Zinos hires a brilliant but temperamental chef who was fired from a top restaurant for refusing to serve warm gazpacho (Head-On's pock-marked faced Birol Unel) his customers flee, the first of a series of disasters that brings the Soul Kitchen to the edge of closure.
Things spin round when the rag-tag rock band using the now-empty restaurant for rehearsal start pulling a crowd, transforming the sad, doomed eatery into the coolest nightspot in Hamburg, bringing Zinos a river of cash and giving his wayward brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) a new lease of life.
What separates Soul Kitchen from all those similar against-the-odds stories that Hollywood has been pumping out for decades is Akin's attention to the cast of lovably eccentric characters and its sense of place, with Hamburg leaping into our imagination as a totally cool travel destination.
Indeed, Akin's lack of attention to the film's more conventional narrative elements, such as the conniving businessman who wants to get his hands on Zinos' property, is its very strength, a kind of elbowing aside of the straight aspect of the movie (which is indeed the actual theme of Soul Kitchen).
Bousdoukos is a likeable hero, a nice mix of cool and klutz, but he's the straight banana in this bunch of fruit loops, headed by the wonderful Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run, The Baader-Meinhoff Complex) as the slippery Illias and the congenitally grungy Unel, who prowls the kitchen with such a sense of entitlement - this is his kingdom and those who enter do so at their own risk - that he would chop Gordon Ramsay into mince-meat (lightly flavoured with onions, garlic and rosemary).
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