Look, if it's going to have any chance of stirring in us that warm, giddy, life-saving thrill of love actually working out, a romantic comedy with a happy ending probably has to cheat a little bit, to inflate its obstacles, to make those final moments truly momentous. To honor that feeling that, in real life, might spread over months, the romantic comedy must cram into minutes its lovers admitting, to themselves and each other, that they are in fact in love, and then their realization that it's reciprocated, and then their certainty that this very second right now is the one in which they must decide on what the rest of their lives will look like.
It's ridiculous, but there's a reason it's formula: It can work. Neither my wife nor I believed that the last ten minutes or so of the smashing new rom-com Amira & Sam could have actually happened, yet there we sat, dry-throated but misty-eyed, swallowing our lumps. The film's final moments don't feel like life itself, but they can pass for a highly romantic fantasyland bouillon reduction of it: Here's everything you felt when you first knew you were together for real, just all crammed into two scenes on an Earth that's not our own.
But much of the rest of this stellar romance does seem to occur here, especially the funny, rousing, deftly performed scenes between the leads, Dina Shihabi and Martin Starr. If the climax fast-forwards life, the film's best scene slows down what we usually get from the movies. Amira & Sam's beguiling centerpiece is a seven-minute shot in the Staten Island studio apartment of Sam, a vet just back from Afghanistan and adrift in the city of his birth. In one long take, we observe these two climb into bed together, as chaste not-quite friends forced into It Happened One Night-style room-sharing, and then negotiate the space between them, both physical and otherwise. They tell secrets, laugh nervously, flirt with the possibility of flirting but then shy away — until, suddenly, beautifully, one finds an excuse to plant a light kiss on the other and then immediately continue talking as if nothing had happened. The scene is so patient, engaging and potent that it makes forgivable the film's other implausibilities: the thread about Sam getting roped into shady hedge fund deals with a cousin; the over-the-top racism of Sam's Staten Island family. If nothing else, we believe in these two.
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Amira winds up in that bed after Sam is charged by his friend (and her uncle) Bassam (Laith Nakli) with sheltering her for a couple days while the police search for her. Amira, Iraqi by birth, is at risk of being deported after she gets busted hawking pirated DVDs on a Brooklyn sidewalk. ("You seen Jim Carrey in Yes Man?" she hollers, her smile radiant beneath her hijab. "He says yes all of the time!") Writer-director Sean Mullin gives us some of the usual beats, but he and his performers invest them with rare persuasive power: Amira initially detests Sam, as her family fled Iraq aiding the U.S. military there but not being protected by it, and at first her time with Sam, a low-key charmer, is a grind. But then, before that bed scene, they have one of those Magic Days that New York is contractually obligated to muster up for all romantic comedies: He takes her sailing up the East River in a boat borrowed from a wealthy uncle; they swoon for the bridges, joke about Facebook and, in a smartly underplayed moment, Sam connives to get her to give him her hand.
Starr has grown into a handsome, somewhat sad-eyed young man whose wit and appeal sneak up on you. The timelines don't jibe, but his Sam could be Freaks & Geeks' ur-nerd Bill Haverchuck grown up and into himself, shaped by military discipline into a man the world doesn't disdain — but still harboring that dreamy goofiness. The best scene Starr's ever been in was that episode where Haverchuck, home alone after school, eats a grilled cheese and laughs himself silly at Garry Shandling doing stand-up, all while the Who sing "I'm One." That's echoed here by Sam's daring to take the stage at a comedy open-mike night, and Amira's goading him to keep at it, even after he bombs.
That term, "bombs," confounds her. "Is 'bombed' good or bad?" she asks.
"'Killed' is good," Sam says, which doesn't clear it up. Shihabi's Amira is a complex delight, a movie junkie who dreams big, has a wicked sense of humor, holds brooding grudges and is more amused than everyone else by her uncertainty about some of the subtleties of idiomatic English. "I am fucking with your asshole!" she says to Sam, an expression she takes to mean "I'm just messing with you." She skewers stereotypes, clashes with her uncle about what behavior is proper, and is the first to push for this relationship to become something more — yet she is unwilling to surrender her beliefs or heritage to this new country whose culture she loves. The hijab comes off only in private, and Mullin makes it a tenderly erotic ritual. But it's in Shihabi's face that the movie's drama unfolds: Her stern distaste for Sam lightly loosens, scene by scene, in convincing increments, until at last she's beaming. Watching, it's hard not to join her.