Soul Kitchen is a lot like cotton candy—sweet but, ultimately, not very satisfying. Like many festival favorites, the plot of this independent German film revolves around a cast of lovably quirky characters who get themselves eye-deep into trouble.
Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German of Greek descent, has a lot of stuff on his plate. He’s the proprietor of Soul Kitchen, a struggling eatery in a rundown section of Hamburg. The tax people, led by Frau Schuster (Catrin Striebeck), are knocking at his door. His ne’er-do-well brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), seeks employment at the restaurant wanting “to go through the motions” of working so that he can make parole. Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a shady real estate agent, is sniffing around in hopes of acquiring the property. An uninsured Zinos makes the mistake of trying to move a heavy dishwasher by himself and gets a herniated disk for his trouble. On top of all this, Zinos is pining away for his girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan), who has hightailed it to Shanghai.
Attempting to revamp the restaurant’s simple cuisine, he hires the temperamental Shayn (Birol Ünel), a culinary snob who lost his last job for pulling a knife on a paying customer who asked for hot gazpacho. Things start looking up for Zinos when Shayn’s gourmet creations take off with the hip crowd. Eager to reunite with Nadine, Zinos makes plans to move to Shanghai, leaving Illias to manage the place. Illias gambles the restaurant away to Neumann. And poor Zinos discovers that Nadine has been cheating on him and aggravates his back injury on the same day. Zinos burns down his apartment in a fit of painkiller-induced pique. Homeless, loveless, jobless, and broke, Zinos has to figure out a way to get his restaurant back.
The script, co-written by the director and the leading man, is chock full of sly jokes and the dialogue is genuinely inspired. The filmmaker wisely decided not to let the food upstage the story. The problem is that the characters, with the exception of Zinos, are mere stereotypical sketches. Too much of the plot rests on contrivance—the romance between Illias and the surly waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke), for example—and things wrap up a little too neatly at the end. I never could root for the burgeoning relationship between Zinos and Anna (Dorka Gryllus), the physiotherapist who treats his back injury; the two don’t spend enough time onscreen together for me to care.
Full of whimsy, Soul Kitchen is definitely a film I would watch again. I can also see how it won the Special Jury Prize and the Young Cinema Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. It should enjoy a respectable run on the art-house circuit when it’s released in the States later this summer; however, the film is much too flawed to ever make any “best of” list, and it definitely isn’t Fatih Akin’s best work.