Whatever single adjective describes Short Sharp Shock, Head-On, and The Edge of Heaven, it is assuredly not "frothy" - and yet here we are, with director Fatih Akin making himself a breezy farce about restaurant management and the joy of food, Soul Kitchen, and it is simultaneously a great deal frothier than any of those dramas would have ever deigned to consider possible, while also feeling every single inch an Akin film (and it's not, as it happens, his first comedy: In July, made in 2000, already crossed that bridge, though it's not quite this breezy).
Taking place in the Wilhelmsburg quarter of Hamburg, Soul Kitchen is exactly what it says: the story of a restaurant called Soul Kitchen, which is also exactly what it says, a tiny haven serving American soul food to an American soul soundtrack deep in the run-down part of the second-largest city in Germany. The restaurant is the beloved baby of a German-born Greek named Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with Akin), who is just at the moment we meet him going through a massive clusterfuck of personal issues: his girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is leaving for a long-term reporting job in Shanghai, and she's pissed that he's not making the slightest effort to join her; his brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) is looking for a mindless job to exploit a rule that will let him out of prison on weekdays to work; the tax collectors are sniffing around; and he's fucked his back up real good, and has been obliged to hire the borderline psychotic chef Shayn Weiss (Birol Ünel) to take over the kitchen, and that man's refusal to keep preparing the ghastly, cheap food that has so far been Soul Kitchen's stock-in-trade has just cost Zinos all of his regular customers.
Great comedy is always but a step removed from great tragedy, a fact which Akin (a pretty damn fine tragedian, if that is quite the right word for his films) understands well. It would take only a few tweaks for Soul Kitchen to be a despairing tale of the economically washed-out trying to find some way to clamber above squalor, a story of the non-German's difficulty in making it in the melting pots of urban Germany to match the desperation hinting around the edges - and sometimes given the spotlight - of Head-On and The Edge of Heaven. Though Zinos, it must be said, is much more German than the Turkish-born protagonists of those movies (Akin is German-born of Turkish descent; Bousdoukos, like his character, is a German-born Greek), and the ethnic component of the film, while given far more attention than it would ever be in the same movie made in a more race-skittish country, is relatively subdued. That is one of the little tweaks that keeps Soul Kitchen as much fun as it is: though I guess there could be such a thing as a polemic about the struggles ethnic minorities that is also a scintillating comedy, I am much at a loss to imagine what such a thing would look like.
It's thus superficially possible to moan that Soul Kitchen is somehow more trivial than Akin's other films. This is entirely untrue, although its depths are in entirely different, more conventional places: the pleasure of a well-drawn cast of characters, and a tightly observed place that is depicted with so much precision and specificity that it can't help but become utterly universal in the process. At the same time, Soul Kitchen is awfully silly, and broad - and God help us all if silliness is an inherent sin in art. Akin's brilliant direction of his silly material puts puts all but the very best modern Hollywood comedies to shame, and make no mistake: he's squaring off against Hollywood on its own turf. There's never a moment, no matter how badly things go (Soul Kitchen is under constant threat from Zinos's old friend, a sharp real-estate developer played by the excellently-named Wotan Wilke Möhring), in which we don't expect that things will turn out alright, and in many cases we have the exact tools to make a guess how they turn out alright, thanks to a script that doesn't exactly go easy on the foreshadowing - "Gee, he needs a cook? Good thing that he just meant that cantankerous chef on the very night he was fired. His relationship with Nadine is falling apart? Hm, well then it's lucky that he's been making goo-goo faces with that pretty physical therapist (Dorka Gryllus)." A more genial, crowd-pleasing "art" film hasn't been and almost certainly won't be found in American theaters this year; take away the subtitles and you've got a perfect film to show your grandma.
There is, of course, an undercurrent of seriousness to the whole thing: it is a work deeply concerned with a particular place and culture, in which poverty is a near-constant handmaiden. Without emphasising the run-down nature of the whole thing, the filmmakers manage to leave us with an unmistakable sense of wear and tear: Akin's current go-to cinematographer, Rainer Klausmann, is heavy on the drab colors and a genuinely startling flatness - there's a phenomenal contrast between camera movements emphasising three-dimensional space and Klausmann's insistence on reducing everything to one smudgy plane that serves the material extremely well, while giving added strength to the handful of moment in which something really unusual is done (there is a moment in which, of all things, a fish-eye lens is trotted out to give a climactic scene some profoundly exhilarating emotional heft). Tamo Kunz's production design is also worthy of special attention: wonderfully detailed and full of rich life, it's beautiful in a very definite, if off-kilter way, but it is also unmistakably seedy and threadbare, a glorious visual consummation of the idea that these characters live in a world they deeply love, but can barely hold together.
Comedy that skirts the edge of tragedy, like I said. At times, Soul Kitchen tries to force itself into jollity just a wee bit too much: a couple of important plot-moving scenes are definitely more contrived and, in one jarring bit, outright cartoonish, than the film can necessarily withstand. Happily, these moments are rare, and for the most part the film hums along in an incredibly pleasant mode, unfathomably sincere but never arch about it. There's all sorts of love in the movie: the characters' love of Soul Kitchen, Akin and company's love of the characters. The result is a tremendously satisfying movie that is not too challenging but awfully good anyway, and, if I might reach for the hideously obvious pun, absolutely good for the soul.