By John Lichman | April 26, 2010

Workplace comedies strut a fine line between being blurred by nostalgia (“Empire Records” does not represent the hell of retail) or being accurate (“Waiting…” and “Employee of the Month” are scarily dead-on.) Still, who needs real life when you can rely on your friends, co-worker tropes and corrupt real estate agents?

“Soul Kitchen” is Faith Akin’s fairly charming, but overtly bland, work-related comedy. Of course, coming from the director of “Head-On” that could mean all sorts of unfortunate things are on their way. The shock is that a clean Akin is decent at setting up the shots and gags—it just takes a while to get to them.

It’s hard not to smirk at “Kitchen:” the restaurant is in Wilhelmsburg (which a jaded New Yorker could easily read into as Williamsburg), it has a surly old Hemingway-esque man working on a boat and Moritz Bleibtre (“Agnes and His Brothers,” “The Experiment”) twirling his way through the shots.

The Soul Kitchen in question is a makeshift greasy spoon in an industrial area with locals reliant on fries, wienerschnitzel and hamburgers. Under Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), his haphazard crew of a heavy-drinking waitress/art student (Anna Bederke) and laconic guitar player/guitar player (Lucas Gregorowicz) operate in a comfortably numb atmosphere. Cue the exit of Zinos’ girlfriend; enter the work-release parole of his gambler brother Illias (Bleibtreu) who plans to fake employment so he can stay out at night and follow all of that up with a childhood friend who now happens to moonlight as a corrupt real estate agent. Now we’ve got a plot!

Oh. If you blink, you’ll miss Udo Kier’s four mints he eats in three scenes, plus one button. By the time you get over seeing him for the first time, you’ll realize he has roughly seven lines of dialog.

“Kitchen” isn’t slinging anything new at the concept, aside from a quick quip the entire film builds up about screwing the tax office. But it drags itself along from plot point to plot point until the wonderful Deus Ex Machina emerges to sum up the final ten minutes plays like a Rube Goldberg design set up amongst the people of Hamburg.

It’s possible to see this entire concept being shifted to the ‘Burg in a few years with John Cusack thrown into the role of Zinos. But “Kitchen’s” ensemble is intoxicating as Birol Ünel struts around as a mad chef determined not to pander to low-class tastes, but not unable to repurpose the same food in a higher quality. Which is apt for Akin’s “family”-themed comedy in a way, but even if you reheat and deep-fry something it doesn’t mean it’ll be good.

And really, you know a food metaphor just had to come in somewhere.

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