Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 14 September 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
Nobody who saw Head-On, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s breakthrough feature (at least in the U.S.), has likely forgotten the ecstatic moment in which its two lost protagonists leap wildly about a dingy apartment while shouting “PUNK IS NOT DEAD!” at the top of their lungs. With his latest film, Soul Kitchen, Akin makes a valiant attempt to sustain that level of manic energy from start to finish, and comes remarkably close to succeeding. So over-the-top boisterous that I initially misinterpreted its gleeful disdain for conventional niceties as mere ineptitude, this is a two-chord Ramones album of a movie with infectious high spirits and no use for subtlety; once I finally surrendered to its goofy charm (which took nearly half an hour, so conditioned was I by Akin’s fairly somber previous film, The Edge of Heaven), it became one of those rare cinema experiences that’s more akin to a party than a movie.
The story itself is hilariously overstuffed. Soul Kitchen is the name of a nondescript Hamburg diner run by Zinos Kazantsakis, a Greek-German (Akin is really stretching here!) whose girlfriend has just taken a job in China and wants him to join her there. At her going-away party, Zinos witnesses a tantrum thrown by a temperamental chef and shortly thereafter hires the guy, even though he refuses to cook the comfort food Soul Kitchen’s patrons prefer. Meanwhile, a starchy tax collector threatens to repossess the appliances; an old school chum angles to buy Zinos out (making anonymous complaints to the health inspector when Zinos refuses); and Zinos’ brother, a professional burglar doing six months in jail, asks for a phony job at the restaurant in order to take part in a work-release program. Throw in a herniated disc, an aspiring rock band, no-limit hold’em poker, ill-advised power-of-attorney arrangements and a cell phone with Zapp & Roger’s “I Want to Be Your Man” as its never-not-funny ringtone, and you still haven’t even scratched the surface of all the heady nonsense at play.
For those unprepared for intentional stupidity, as I was, Soul Kitchen will at first seem plenty jarring. Akin works entirely in shorthand here, encouraging his ensemble cast to play to the rafters and getting instantly to the point of every scene—so much so that it sometimes seems as if he shot the outline for the script rather than an actual fleshed-out screenplay. Every line of dialogue is purely functional, every plot twist deliberately telegraphed. Cartoon behavior reigns: When Zinos’ brother, smitten with Soul Kitchen’s hot waitress, sees her grooving to the work of a club DJ, he immediately phones a couple of fellow thugs who appear a moment later, masked, to steal the turntables and mixing board. At one point, a character’s sudden fall inspires a camera move rarely seen in films not starring Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. No gag is too silly, no incident too contrived, no anything “too much.”
So what separates Soul Kitchen from any random Hollywood comedy starring the middle-aged, defanged Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin? In a word, soul. Akin may be taking a quick breather from weighty subject matter, but that doesn’t mean he’s on autopilot. On the contrary, every frame of the movie throbs with conviction and the sheer joy of filmmaking, to the point where you may swear you can hear the director cackling in the background of certain particularly ludicrous shots and scenes. It’s exhilarating to see someone as gifted as Akin working in this broadly populist mode and treating it not as hackwork but as an opportunity to just cut loose for a little while. He brings the fun.
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