The ardent, mostly single-guy romantics of The Brothers don't come from Mars or from Venus. They are very much of this earth: smart, sexy, touchingly confused professionals in their late 20s who deeply love women, who cherish their hearts and bodies and minds, yet who stumble the moment they try to figure out how to love them. Written and directed by Gary Hardwick, who has been a novelist, attorney, and stand-up comic (it's his first feature), this passionate and saucy comedy, which traces the intricate and joshing relationships among four African-American friends as they attempt to support each other and, at the same time, move beyond each other, is filled with the sort of just-try-and-top-this-sucker dialogue that leaves an audience hooting with delight. A fellow watches his estranged girlfriend stroll through a nightclub along with a hulking replacement beau, and he says, ''I know she ain't just dissed me like that. Coming up in here with Amistad!'' At the same time, the movie digs more vibrantly into issues of trust, fear, pleasure, commitment, and camaraderie than any Hollywood feature in recent memory.
It's about time those of us in the media stopped classifying movies by race. What's a black romantic comedy, anyway? Is Diner a white comedy? Well, no, but in melting-pot America, we shouldn't have to pretend that there aren't contrasting cultural moods and styles, and watching The Brothers, I was struck, much as I was when I saw the exuberant matrimonial comedy The Best Man, by the way that the heroes voice their amorous doubts and drives with a bemused, honestly libidinous, nonexploitative joy and self-perception, something that happens all too rarely in movies these days. In the freeness of their banter, these men, these brothers, are really trying to get a handle on devotion -- on how the glories of sex and love can't be separated, even if that leaves the characters with their emotional wires crisscrossed.
At the beginning, Jackson (Morris Chestnut), a handsome physician and ladies' man (he has been through three girlfriends in two months), confesses to his therapist that he's tired of the chain-relationship game, and the chesty stud Terry (Shemar Moore), fabled among his circle for his bed-hopping exploits, announces to his buddies that he has gotten engaged. The longtime comrades sit around after their weekly basketball game, razzing each other about the state of their lives, and as soon as Brian (Bill Bellamy), a hard-partying lawyer and ferociously arrested lothario (he's hooked on the adoration of white women, whom he treats as disposable candy), voices his extreme objection to all of this impending monogamy, we're braced for another formula comedy about tidy masculine types -- that is, for the usual debate between alpha- male hedonism and soul-deep commitment. It arrives, but not in the way you expect.
Hardwick, a natural-born crowd-pleaser, isn't above staging a scene in which one of the men's former flings (Angelle Brooks) and his current flame (Julie Benz) get into a slapstick catfight. The Brothers occasionally flirts with cliche, yet it never locks its characters into sitcom boxes. The three bachelors are contrasted with the short, rascally Derrick (D.L. Hughley), who is married, committed, and miserable. His wife, the perky Sheila (Tamala Jones), is squeamish about performing oral sex, and this delicate issue metastasizes into a power game that threatens to break apart the marriage. Hughley, one of the four stand-up artists from The Original Kings of Comedy, does something tricky and rare: He uses his rowdy stylized delivery to express pain -- and, later, a hilarious naughty delight at the prospect that his wife might actually want to please him.
For a movie that's this focused on men, The Brothers understands and respects the power of women, and it has an unusual sense of generational overflow. We meet Jackson's divorced parents, the worldly and ribald Louise (played by the scene-stealing Jenifer Lewis) and the graying but youthful Fred (Clifton Powell), a sincere, melancholy man who is still very much entangled with the family he abandoned. As Jackson, put on the defensive, proceeds to scuttle his relationship with Denise (Gabrielle Union), the woman he wants to marry yet can't go the extra mile for, we sense how he's been trapped in a deep private battle between himself and his father. Morris Chestnut, who debuted in Boyz N the Hood and costarred in The Best Man, has cool liquid eyes, a killer smile, and a fleet, almost musical way with dialogue that hints at something held back, a hidden force behind his lightness. That force is what makes him a potentially major actor.
Eager, in most cases, to move past the thrill of seduction and toward the deeper pleasures of marriage, the characters in The Brothers are doing all that they can to live up to the best vision of themselves. Yet their finely honed pride has sealed them into an unwitting bubble of lordly independence. They are strong, self-sufficient, and, in spirit at least, very much alone, and this lends the movie's comedy a rich undercurrent of sadness. It's a feeling that more than a few men, and women, will understand. B+
The Brothers STARRING D.L. Hughley Morris Chestnut SCREEN GEMS RATED R 106 MINUTES