Amira is a walking contradiction. She wears a hijab, but isn’t shy about showing a little cleavage. She came from Iraq to America, but she hates American soldiers. She is cranky but flippant, profane but still Muslim, pretty when she smiles. Which is almost never.
“I do what I want,” she hisses, in English or Arabic, whenever confronted with these facts. Usually, that happens when she’s on a Lower East Side street corner, hustling pirated DVDs.
“Hey man, have you seen Bridget Jones’s amazing ‘Diary?'”
Sam is an Army veteran who just lost his job as a security guard. Friends tell him his deadpan way with a funny story or joke would work in stand-up. Only it doesn’t.
“Amira & Sam” pairs these two unlikely loners up for an “Only in New York” style romance — with bench side views of the sun setting on the Hudson, combustible teasing, cultural, financial and legal obstacles that stand in the way of love. And somehow, writer-director Sean Mullin’s short, far-fetched love affair comedy charms and works more often than not.
Martin Starr (“This is the End”) is Sam, just done with a multi-year hitch, returned to civilian life with an idealism that doesn’t fit in with the yuppies who insult him out of his security guard job, or the hedge fund crowd that his overly-helpful cousin (Paul Wesley) wants him to run with. Cousin Charlie sees Sam’s military service as a magical connection to potential clients, fellow veterans (David Rasche plays one).
Amira lives, illegally, with her uncle (Laith Nakli), a man who once worked as a translator for Sam’s unit in Iraq. Their connection has a poignant backstory, but Amira isn’t hearing it. She’s hostile from the start, won’t laugh at Sam’s jokes or eat food he has prepared.
Events conspire to throw them together, and while it would be stretching it to say “Hilarity ensues,” the cuteness in their interaction and not-quite-gradual warming does.
She wonders if he’s on Facebook, his questions are more direct.
“Are you bald under that thing?” he says, of her head-covering. “Do you shower in it? Do you shave your pits? Is that an Arab thing? Or just a French thing?”
Mullin crams a lot of melodramatic touches — immigration issues, Charlie giving Sam a sailboat, Charlie’s ethical problems — into 87 minutes. These two would-be lovers leap from hostile and mistrusting to kissing and hugging and showing up at an engagement party, him in his old uniform, her in a stunningly low-cut red party dress, in the most abrupt fashion.
But Starr and especially screen newcomer Shihabi smooth over most of those, and the modestly predictable arc of their story with winsome wit and warmth. We root for them, which is a bottom line must for any romantic comedy, especially the culture clash ones.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, adult situations
Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche
Credits: Written and directed by Sean Mullin. A Drafthouse Films release.
Running time: 1:27