German helmer Fatih Akin’s latest, “Soul Kitchen,” is a lark, but an enjoyable one. The film sees the director of “Head On” and “The Edge of Heaven” doing schtick for the first time — not as odd a transition as one might think from his previous dramas, which have in common a deeply felt human touch and sense of interconnection. In fact, Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) wishes he were a little less connected at the start of “Soul Kitchen” — his brother Illyas (Moritz Bleibtreu) is out on conditional probation and needs a job at his restaurant, a high school acquaintance is going after the land that restaurant sits on, the Hamburg Tax Office is looking to collect back taxes and the one person he wishes were around, his girlfriend, is headed to Shanghai for six months for work. He also has chronic back pains, which don’t do him any favors as he tries to save his flagging business and hires a wild card chef (Birol Ünel) that he must keep his eye on.
Things only get wilder from there, unspooling to a soundtrack stuffed with the Isley Brothers, Kool and the Gang and Ruth Brown. Heeding the advice of Zinos’ chiropractor, Akin’s film keeps moving constantly, displaying a keen wit to accompany the director’s already established visual flair. “Soul Kitchen” only hits speed bumps when Akin occasionally goes for the easy joke instead of the many long cons that he sets up throughout the film that ultimately pay off in spades. Zinos’ slipped disk in his back, Udo Kier as a breath mint-popping businessman and anything involving Zinos’ easily irritable chef — who responds to a customer’s request for hot gazpacho by offering to “piss in it to make it hot” — are among the many pleasures derived from Akin’s clever running gags.
Fresh from winning a Special Jury Prize at Venice, Akin was in a good mood during the film’s Q&A, teasing the audience when asked whether the English-speaking crowd got all the Hamburg-centric humor with a sly “Almost.” The good news is that Akin came to Toronto at all — he’d finished a cut in time for Cannes, but the film’s composer denied him, saying “Can’t send it to Cannes. It’s not groovy enough.” There were no complaints from the Toronto crowd at the Ryerson, though Akin said he’ll be returning to drama for his next film since “it’s easier.” He made “Soul Kitchen” at the urging of his late producing partner Andreas Thiel, who died during the last week of shooting on “Head On” and never got to experience the film’s international success. Akin said Thiel always liked the script for “Kitchen,” which had been kicking around for five years before he went ahead and made what he called “a family film. I put all my friends together and said, ‘let’s make this.'”