The shaggily endearing romantic comedy Soul Kitchen (IFC Films) is the least ambitious effort so far from director Fatih Akin, a German of Turkish descent whose previous films include the emotionally grueling but superb dramas Head On and The Edge of Heaven. But an unambitious Akin film is still a fair sight more substantial than any of the other romantic comedies coming out of Hollywood these days. Soul Kitchen is sprawling, undisciplined, raucous, occasionally crass—and so full of life you forgive it everything.
A funny, hyperkinetic opening montage gives us a sense of the barely staved-off disaster that is the life of Hamburg restaurant owner Zinos Kazantzakis (Adam Bousdoukos, who also collaborated with Akin on the script). Racing around his establishment, the Soul Kitchen, Zinos singlehandedly and none too hygienically serves up platters of frozen pizza, deep-fried fish patties, and potato salad straight from the plastic bucket. Zinos owes so much in back taxes that a city tax inspector is threatening to seize his place, and the health inspector doesn't look too thrilled, either. His girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is about to move to Shanghai for her job, and she's being vague about when and whether Zinos is invited to join her.
On the brink, genial slob Zinos hires a temperamental but brilliant chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), who insists on upgrading the Soul Kitchen menu. At first the junk-food-loving clientele leaves the place in droves. But then a dance school opens next door, and the students go wild for Shayn's food and for the classic funk music that Zinos' brother Ilias (Moritz Bleibtreu), a charismatic small-time hood, spins on his stolen turntable.
The restaurant enjoys an interlude of wild success, and we track its growing popularity with a series of increasingly Bacchanalian party scenes. But Zinos' fortunes still have several more turns to take before the movie's end—he must contend with a sharkish real-estate speculator (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who wants to buy out the restaurant and tear it down.
Soul Kitchen isn't a foodie movie (though it includes plenty of shots of delicious-looking dishes, including an aphrodisiac-spiked dessert that turns the whole restaurant into a make-out palace). It's a movie devoted to exploring pleasure: the pleasure of dancing, of having sex (an activity depicted with jolly R-rated frankness), of listening to great music (Kool & the Gang, Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers). Halfway through this broad, slapsticky goof, you realize what you're watching is also a faithful portrait of a certain Hamburg subculture, the grungy, multicultural bohemia where Akin himself spent years working as a DJ and bartender. It's a world he clearly loves, and this movie, slight as it is, brings it to funky, rollicking life.