comedy film

Amira & Sam Review: Lookee Here, a Great Modern Romantic Comedy!

Friday, February 06, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Amira & Sam

Director: Sean Mullin
Writer: Sean Mullin
Starring: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley
Rating: Four stars out of five

A lot of romantic comedies take a wrong turn in the casting. Katherine Heigl is not the funniest human being in the world. She's a fine performer in the right instance. She hits her marks just fine, like in Knocked Up, but she doesn't have that special funny bone, that specific way of looking at the world that a natural comic actor has. That's a rare gift to possess.

Luckily, her costar in that Judd Apatow film, Martin Starr, is that natural comic. Jokes roll off his tongue easily, he can embody a person uncomfortable with the world around him, he sees things just so and, most importantly, he can make an audience see things the way he does. Surprisingly, though, he has depths not seen in his roles in things like Party Down or Silicon Valley. He's downright charming when he wants to be.

And so is the case in Amira & Sam, the new romantic comedy-drama from Sean Mullin, in which Starr is the second half of the title, an Afghanistan war veteran returning to civilian life in 2008 New York. He's unsure, perplexed about how much his home has changed in the “better part of the last decade” he's been away. He doesn't know what he wants to do with himself in the present, let alone the future. He's seemingly not haunted by his war experiences, having felt he did his duty and without any obscene horror stories to tell. This is in itself a refreshing look at our most recent wars, with a central character not a mess – to him, Afghanistan existed, it was a part of his life, and now it's time to figure out where to go from there, with good humor intact. He tries his hand at standup comedy and bombs badly. He gets a short-term job as a security guard made even more short term by his inability to put up with disrespect from a group of drunks. Luckily, he has a cousin on Wall Street (Paul Wesley) who offers to give him a shot as a junior salesperson with his hedge fund business. His cousin isn't completely on the up and up, more concerned with profiting from his family member's war experience by enlisting him as a go-between for veteran clients, but it offers Sam a way to get ahead so he goes with it.

On the other side of the city, Amira (Dina Shihabi) is an Iraqi immigrant who sells bootleg DVDs – “You like Jim Carey? Yes Man? He says yes all the time!” – while living with her uncle, a former Arabic translator for Sam. The old friends get together, it's revealed that Amira's in some legal hot water with immigration officials, and Sam is tasked with housing her for a little while. They don't quite get along, but they try to make the uncomfortable situation work, him sleeping on the floor, her in his twin bed.

The typical romantic comedy beats follow, but there's more meat to the story. There's a genuine sense of honor and chivalry on both sides of the romance. They are careful and respectful. They are curious about each other and don't talk at each other in ways the plot requires, but because they want to learn more about the other's backgrounds. They want to “read [each other's] mind.” They push each other to pursue things they don't have the courage to do on their own – steering boats, taking the stage to tell jokes, et cetera – and they stick up for each other even when it spells likely doom for them being able to see each other again.

That's because Amira & Sam is about a budding give-and-take relationship. It's not an example of codependency like many other romantic comedies of recent vintage. These people are actually good for each other, not because the movie requires it at the moment, but because it is constructed in a way to make them fit. Real obstacles crop up, but they weigh their options and move forward.

It's not without its issues, although they are fairly minor as these things go. It would be great to see more of Amira staking out a claim for herself on the bootleg DVD racket, not only for the comedy that would provide, but it would make her even more of her own person, beyond the terrific, pragmatic, and sweet performance from Shihabi, one in which she probably cements herself as a rising star. She's already an independent-minded person, but it would strengthen her introduction to show that independence from the word go. The cousin subplot goes a little too black and white after a fairly nuanced beginning in which both parties seem to realize they are using each other to an extent. Mullin makes due with his low budget on the visual side of things, but some more attention to framing could liven things up more.

But these are nitpicks. Amira & Sam is a wonderful motion picture. It should be looked at as a way forward for this stagnant genre. Mullin is a filmmaker to watch, Shihabi will make for a phenomenal lead in all kinds of movies going forward, and Starr shades himself as a terrific human being, beyond the slack-jawed, sardonic nerd-jerk he typically plays.

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