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THE BROTHERS

by: Michael Dequina

With its basic premise of L.A.-based group of African-American male friends bonding in the wake one of their members' impending nuptials, Gary Hardwick's The Brothers has been quickly dismissed as a rip of The Wood, Rick Famuyiwa's sleeper of a couple of summers ago. But if the two films are all that similar in any way (and, for the record, they really aren't), it's in their laid-back style and warm heart.

That gentleness occasionally comes in some raunchy wrappings, particularly in the storyline belonging to Derrick West (D.L. Hughley), the only married one of the four "brothers." Having married young after getting his now-wife Sheila (Tamala Jones) pregnant, Derrick yearns for more excitement in the bedroom, namely one specific sex act that Sheila refuses to perform. Getting sex is no problem for the suave Terry White (Shemar Moore), but he surprises his buddies when he renounces his womanizing ways and announces his engagement. Especially shocked are the two most commitment-phobic of the group, Jackson Smith (Morris Chestnut), whose parents' split has left him with a fear of marriage; and Brian Palmer (Bill Bellamy), who wants a woman to cater to his needs for a change.

Per the usual case with films that follow more than one character and storyline, some threads work better than others. When it comes to laughs, Derrick's is the one to beat, fueled by the live-wire hysterics of Hughley. The most affecting is the more earnest Jackson one; he meets and falls photographer Denise Johnson (Gabrielle Union, finally free of token minority roles in teen comedies), whom he feels could be the one. A soap opera-ish secret from her past threatens their future happiness, but the attractive and talented stars and their smoldering chemistry make the melodrama and sometimes predictable turns more than plausible.

The film may be called The Brothers, but the film is also notable for its three-dimensional portrayal of women. In addition to the noble yet flawed Denise, there's Jackson's mother Louise (Jenifer Lewis), a rare movie older woman allowed to be vibrant and vivacious without being reduced to the caricature of a lecherous sexual predator. As vividly etched by Hardwick's script and Lewis's performance, Louise is a romantic who is willing to take a chance on love regardless of the price, falling back into the arms of her estranged (and Jackson's father), Fred (Clifton Powell) with the acute awareness that she could be hurt all over again. While their parts are significantly smaller, Jackson's free-thinking younger sister Cherie (Tatyana Ali) and Jesse Caldwell (Julie Benz), a very blonde, very white self-defense instructor romanced by Brian, make impressions as believable, well-rounded people.

That said, the film is not called The Brothers for nothing, and the lead quartet all make a substantial mark, with one exception: The Young and the Restless star Moore. However, this is less to do with his performance than the thinness of his part. While his character's wedding engagement sets the film in motion, Moore quickly disappears into the background, resurfacing at certain times to only do what's typically expected of a soap opera hunk--take off his shirt. On occasion, the charismatic Moore is able to display some of the abilities that earned him an Emmy award, but Hardwick gives him too few of those opportunities.

But all the quibbles with Hardwick's work (such as the over-the-top, recurring gun-toting bride image that haunts Jackson) become moot by the time The Brothers is over and one is left with warm memories of laughs, loves, and most of all likable characters with whom one wouldn't mind spending another two hours.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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