It’s tempting to give writer-director Sean Mullin extra credit for putting a spotlight on under-represented characters in his limp romantic dramedy Amira & Sam, but when those characters are drawn so poorly and stuck in such a contrived, flimsy story, their mere presence onscreen isn’t enough. The title characters are U.S. Army veteran Sam (Martin Starr), just returned home to the United States for good after nearly a decade of deployments, and Amira (Dina Shihabi), an undocumented Iraqi immigrant living with her uncle Bassam (Laith Nakli) in New York City after fleeing her home country. Their meet-cute involves Sam dropping by to visit Bassam, who was his unit’s translator in Afghanistan, and Amira refusing to speak to Sam because her family was shunned in Iraq after helping Americans.
It’s not exactly bumping into each other at an ice cream parlor, but the rest of the romantic comedy beats play out predictably, as the pair’s antipathy soon turns to affection thanks to outside forces pushing them together. The problem is that Mullin attempts to address serious issues within the context of a fluffy love story, and he ends up brushing complexity aside in favor of unconvincing romantic moments. Amira’s ambivalent attitude toward Americans goes away once she experiences a little bit of Sam’s charm, and Sam’s difficulties readjusting to civilian life become irrelevant once he starts falling for Amira.
That could be a nice metaphor for the power of love, but Mullin and his stars never offer up a believable connection between the ostensible lovers. The movie’s centerpiece is a single seven-minute take as the two lie together in a bed they’ve been forced to share, the sexual tension building as they reveal their inner feelings. Except those feelings are superficial and sketchy, and Starr and Shihabi have no chemistry. They sound like two students reciting the first draft of an acting exercise, not adults falling madly in love.
At least there are occasional charms to the cliched romance (the montage of the two spending a day at such well-worn New York City locales as Coney Island and the Empire State Building is cute, even if it verges on self-parody), which is more than can be said for the dreadful subplot about Sam going to work for his hedge-fund manager cousin (The Vampire Diaries’ Paul Wesley, still looking like a vampire). The movie is set in 2008 for no apparent reason other than to clumsily foreshadow the impending financial crisis, and Mullin sets up a simplistic dichotomy between the pure-hearted, altruistic Sam and the Wall Street douchebags who want to use him as a prop to land wealthy military veterans as clients.
Mullin himself is a military veteran, but none of his dialogue about war rings true. He’s also a stand-up comedian, but the subplot about Sam’s stand-up ambitions is even more thinly conceived than the Wall Street angle, and culminates in an absurdly cheesy rom-com declaration. Starr, who’s made a career out of playing awkward nerds since his days on Freaks & Geeks, deserves a chance to break out as a leading man, and Shihabi is a charming newcomer. But Mullin doesn’t serve either of them with this stilted romance, an attempt at diversity and honesty that ends up phony and conventional.