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06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Film Review: Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen, the latest movie from German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, is quite a change from his two previous films that I reviewed. It's a very funny comedy about various kinds of relationships. On one of the movie's posters, right at the top, is this quote from John Lennon: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Yet Soul Kitchen is not a standard Hollywood-type romantic comedy; the story is much grittier, the passions are earthier, and the people are much rougher around the edges. And Akin tells his story with the camera more than through dialogue. He has the touch of a master filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock here. Every frame of this movie seems perfect, whether a close-up, a medium shot, or a long shot.

Zinos is a young man who owns a restaurant called Soul Kitchen, but his culinary skills could profit from another glance or two at a Julia Child cookbook. Regardless, he has established himself in the neighborhood as a quasi-dependable purveyor of edibles and has attracted a motley crew of loyal customers. Zinos' brother is a small time crook who needs a job, so Zinos hires him too, which angers some of the other employees. But no one can stay mad very long because they get to play their rock and roll music in the place. Hey, the joint isn't called Soul Kitchen for nothing (recall the classic Doors' song of that name).

Shayn is a more accomplished chef who is sacked from a fancier restaurant because he refuses to compromise his expert skills. One day, a fussy customer insists that Shayn microwave a cup of gazpacho, which of course is supposed to be served cold. Shayn's righteous indignation ignites, and he goes ballistic on the customer, reading him the riot act about respecting the food. The restaurant manager fires Shayn on the spot. Zinos, who is also in the restaurant having dinner with his family, follows Shayn outside. Shayn looks at Zinos and says, "Will you give me a job?" Zinos eventually hires him, and Shayn proceeds to alienate just about every diner in Soul Kitchen because he is Jamie Oliver to Zinos' Colonel Sanders. The clientele wants the greasy, deep-fried food that they expect from Zinos, and they balk and vote with their feet when they are treated instead with Shayn's healthier delights.

But Zinos refuses to give up on his new chef. In fact, he wants to learn from him. Shayn is patient with his pupil, even going back to the very basics like the proper way to slice a cucumber. Pretty soon, Zinos is back in business, and the new dynamic duo have a lot of fun in the kitchen. One time, they put an extra dose of an aphrodisiac into a fancy sauce. This inevitably leads to an orgy in the restaurant reminiscent of a scene from Fellini Satyricon. Later, Shayn disappears from the film sort of like how the Fool takes a powder in King Lear; his job is done. Zinos, like Lear, has learned his lessons, so Shayn, like the Fool, can be gone from the story. I also see Shayn (and doesn't that name invoke a Western?) as a kind of Lone Ranger. Characters late in the film ask what happened to Shayn, shades of "Who was that masked man?"

Just when Zinos' troubles begin to seem manageable, an unscrupulous businessman buys the restaurant behind Zinos' back. One thing leads to another, and the building is up for public auction. Zinos puts into motion a clever plan to recover the place. In a scene that must have been inspired by the auction scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, justice prevails. I guess if there's a moral to this part of the story, it's this: never give power of attorney to a brother with a criminal record.

It was fun for me to see some of the same actors in this movie that I saw in the other Akin films I'm familiar with. Like Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, and I don't make these comparisons lightly, Akin likes to work with a stable of actors who obviously feel comfortable with each other. They come across as absolutely sincere, no matter if the emotion is attraction or anger. And I don't know how he does it, but Akin has a way of photographing his actresses in a very sexy way; the camera caresses them like a lover to make them glow.