It's a scenario with which we're all familiar by now: young single guys in search of hot babes, firing one-liners at each other, making pop-cultural references ad nauseam, and ultimately finding out that women are somewhat less shallow than they've been led to believe. At least it's a scenario you know if you go to the movies frequently and choose to see the unadventurous romantic comedy that reinforces gender stereotypes for the sake of a few cheap chuckles. What you don't see in those movies is what happens next: How does the newly wiser man hang on to the dream girl, and what sort of compromises must be made? And what about that smart-ass best friend who served as comic relief through the entire story -- will he always be happy to be the shallow loner?
The biggest strength of the new movie The Brothers is that it picks up at this point, where most other romantic comedies leave off. Here we have four single guys approaching age 30 who, rather than go off and do something crazy to postpone maturity, actually attempt to embrace the concept. The foursome, known to the women in their lives as "the Brothers," consists of Jackson (Morris Chestnut, of The Best Man), whose fear of commitment has landed him in therapy to deal with a recurring matrimonial nightmare; Terry (daytime-soap star Shemar Moore), a reformed man about town about to be married to a woman he's known for only two months; Derrick (D.L. Hughley), the only one of the bunch who's already tied the knot, but he's done so hastily, as it turns out; and Brian (Bill Bellamy), an attorney who fills the traditional wisecracking, womanizing best-friend role (and is implicitly less happy as a result, which is a refreshing change).
Terry's impending nuptials are what kick off the major soul-searching that concerns much of the film. Jackson decides to seek real commitment, only to hop almost immediately into bed with hot young photographer Denise (Gabrielle Union, who played Kirsten Dunst's cheerleader rival in Bring It On), although she's insightful enough to get him to open up emotionally. Brian, who is being stalked and threatened by at least two of his exes, decides to stop dating black women (whom he decries as too often being single moms on welfare: "It's like they're giving out government cheese sandwiches with fake hair and babies") and picks up a glamorous white karate instructor who waits on him hand and foot in a manner that no "sista" would. Derrick, who proudly points to his wife as an example of how mature and committed he is, promptly watches his marriage threaten to fall apart over his wife's refusal to give him blow jobs, despite his willingness to get oral with her (thus shattering the stereotype that black men just don't do that, undoubtedly much to the relief of women everywhere).
Implicit in the film but thankfully not bludgeoned home too directly is the notion that these men fear serious romantic attachments because their fathers were absent from their lives. Only Jackson's dad (Clifton Powell) appears on-screen, and he is a philanderer who has a potent love-hate relationship with his strong-willed ex (Jenifer Lewis), as well as a brief romantic past with Denise that threatens to destroy her current relationship with Jackson. Terry's parents are simply never seen; Derrick's father is deceased and his mother is in the grip of senility, while Brian's single mom can't even bring herself to touch either one of her sons.
There are many things to like about The Brothers beyond its depiction of men who actually want to grow up (and this is a cinematic step forward for all men, black or otherwise): All its characters are depicted as fully rounded human beings without shying away from their less pleasant thoughts (Jackson's sister insisting that white men have "all the equipment and twice the cash" or Derrick referring to a well-built romantic rival as "Amistad"), it differs from many recent films aimed at black audiences by not featuring a single scene that makes the movie feel like a commercial for its own soundtrack, and it's very believable, with the exception of one or two contrivances required to provide the film with both a significant second-act crisis and an ending.
Still, it isn't actually as good as it could be: Maybe real life isn't entertaining enough for us to watch. Or maybe first-time director Gary Hardwick needs more experience behind the camera to develop a visual style beyond the rather flat, TV look shown here. And a little more sizzle couldn't hurt, either: Despite an R rating for strong sexual content and language, it's all talk. There may be much bed-hopping, but the most skin we see is represented by a hooker in a G-string. Guys being what we are, if you're gonna feed us images of maturity, you have to lure us in with a little more than that.
The movie is perhaps most successful as a preview of greater things to come from both D.L. Hughley and Gabrielle Union. Union's transition from high-school cheerleader in her last film to young urban professional may seem drastic, but she's actually 27 years old, making this role the more age-appropriate of the two. As the female conscience of the piece (albeit one with a significant hidden flaw), she holds the screen much as she holds Jackson's attention. And Hughley, whose comedic credentials shouldn't have been in any doubt based on both his TV sitcom and The Original Kings of Comedy, has a presence that feels like a good compromise between romantic lead and wacky jackass, whether he's trying to hold his marriage together or rattling off put-downs such as "I don't play, woman, I quit school because of recess!" Note to Hollywood: Quit wasting our time with Martin Lawrence, and give D.L. some juicy leads.
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