`Kitchen' loses steam


April 23, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



At its best, Kitchen Stories percolates with a steady putter. In part, it's a sly parody of mad-scientist movies. How sly? It's a mad social-scientist movie. The biggest sight gags are charts of a man or woman's foot traffic within his or her own home.

Having come up with labor-saving gadgets and floor plans for the kitchens of Swedish homemakers, Sweden's Home Research Institute (created in 1944) now investigates the kitchen habits of confirmed bachelors in postwar rural Norway. The researchers pull identical green vans across the snow-flecked border, then place very tall chairs in the corners of lonely guys' kitchens. The institute employees aim to be human recording machines, neutral and silent, observing literally from on high.

But they can't be invisible men, and as a Swedish researcher named Folke (Tomas Norstrom) and a Norwegian subject named Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) soon find out, official strictures between people evaporate when they share the same breathing space.

The director, Bent Hamer, who co-wrote the script with producer Jorgen Bergmark, has a visual sense of humor that conveys his derisive amusement at the HRI's attempt to diagram humanity. Hamer's aesthetic designs either mock or overwhelm behavior patterns. That troop of vans has a sublime mechanical ridiculousness, like the menacing black RVs in the cult American comedy Slither. A nighttime view of Folke through the bright square window of his parked van has a layered cut-out quality, like the ticklish South Park look turned elegant.

And for a while, Hamer and his cast make it fun to see Isak and Folke play cat-and-mouse - although they're both so recessive, it's more like mouse-and-mouse. Bearded and pipe-smoking, Isak has a sage appearance that belies his deceptiveness. It takes a while for Folke to realize that he's doing most of his cooking in his room, and a longer while for him to realize that Isak has drilled a peephole in the kitchen ceiling so he can observe him. Folke, for his part, is fubsy - round and ravenous and self-satisfied.

The problem is that their sneakiness is more amusing (and persuasive) than their gradual discovery of spiritual kinship. Like so many movies these days, this one loses its creative steam before the train or van reaches its station. Once Folke and Isak begin talking, the movie gradually sheds its inventiveness and becomes, for the audience, a protracted wait for friendship to triumph over the pursuit of data and for Folke to change his life. Even the orneriest character, Isak's jealous farming buddy and neighbor, ultimately succumbs to fellow feeling. By the end, Hamer's crisp, prickly compositions go soft.

They're left soaking for too long in a vat of International Brotherhood Week goo.

Kitchen Stories

Starring Joachim Calmeyer and Tomas Norstrom

Directed by Bent Hamer

Released by IFC


Time 95 minutes

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