Men resist commitment and women want it. This would be the reductive premise behind any number of popular romances, as well as more than a few best-selling self-help books. It’s a division of cultural labor that tends to reinforce itself. Repeatedly, media images offer up the same old same old—emotions are little girly stuff and car chases and explosions are the province of boys—and consumers absorb it without thinking much about it.
Occasionally, questions arise regarding this pop cultural flow, suggesting that time-tested conditioning is not all it’s cracked up to be, and maybe not even so prevalent as it seems. Writer-director Gary Hardwick’s first feature asks some good questions, and then comes back with answers that are part retro and part unexpected. The Brothers are four longtime friends—Jackson (Morris Chestnut), Terry (Shemar Moore), Derrick (D.L. Hughley), and Brian (Bill Bellamy)—who are facing the crisis of Terry’s upcoming wedding to Ursula (Nadege Auguste). While the guys all agree that she’s fine (she has a good job, great body, and wonderful personality), they’re horrified that one of their number is choosing to “give up his freedom” (this is despite and because of the fact that Derrick is married to Sheila [Tamala Jones], who was pregnant at the time of their wedding).
Morris Chestnut, D.L. Hughley, Bill Bellamy, Shemar Moore, Gabrielle Union, Tatyana Ali, Jenifer Lewis, Marla Gibbs, Julie Benz, Clifton Powell
So far, so familiar. Facing his boys on the basketball court, where they go to sweat, score, and hash out their “stuff,” Terry argues—none too convincingly—that his settling down is a sign of his maturity. The others are unconvinced. And so they go on to talk about it. A lot. You don’t always see men talk about relationships in movies, which is one reason why Hardwick himself has dubbed his film “Refusing to Exhale,” the anti-Terry McMillan version of how “men” interact. It’s not so much that they’re like women, or that they’re holding out because they’re stubborn, but that they’re seeking stability and security. They’re just a little afraid, you know, uncertain and uninformed, even when they strut. Usually their deliberations take place on the basketball court (so Moore and Chestnut can take off their shirts) or in bars (so Hughley and Bellamy can make jokes about folks in their vicinity), but they all eventually come down to the same question. How can you be a man if you’re willing to compromise/share with a woman, when the two “sides” are so patently and so forever opposed?
Brian is the most steadfast in his belief that men and women are from distant planets. And yet even this confirmed bachelor can’t seem to shut up about the subject, though his commentary is mostly derisive and uninformed, and is obviously motivated by his own apprehension over losing his friends, one by one, to heterosexual bliss. Brian’s primary tack to dis and avoid commitment simultaneously involves swearing off of black women, whom he deems “too demanding,” and instead sleeping with white women, who are willing to do anything and everything.
Granted, Brian isn’t exactly breaking new ground with such observations and booty-chasing behaviors, but just as you think that’s all he has going on, the film actually goes a next step. The fact that The Brothers opens with Jackson discussing his relationship troubles with his shrink (Vanessa Bell Calloway), suggests its strategy to differentiate itself from its most obvious generic predecessors (The Best Man and The Wood), which is to delve into its protagonists’ personal and familial histories in order to discover why they’re so afraid of “the C-word.” Not to give anything away, but it turns out that they’ve learned their bad behaviors from their parents; most notably, Brian’s unaffectionate mom (Aloma Wright) taught him to distrust women; Jackson’s philandering dad (Clifton Powell) taught him to distrust himself; and Derrick’s very nice mom (Marla Gibbs) taught him to be a very nice, very trusting, very accommodating fellow. While Derrick is funny and obnoxious, he’s also struggling with some complex “issues.” And Hughley, best known as an incisive stand-up comedian (see, for instance, The Original Kings of Comedy) and sometimes edgy sitcom star (The Hughleys), gives a well-considered and engaging performance—at least when he’s not trashtalking or trying to convince Sheila to give him head (after several years of marriage and a child, she still feels that it’s “nasty”). Their exchanges are among the film’s most interesting, in that they are at the same time comic and provocative.
As Terry is getting married, Derrick is on the verge of divorce, and Brian is revisiting his childhood fears, the film’s throughline comes with Jackson’s dilemma. He tells his doctor that he needs no one, that his needs are easy to line up and address, but he is also willing to admit that maybe he doesn’t have it all figured out (he is seeing a doctor, after all). His panic stems from the fact that he’s considering maybe-possibly-perhaps becoming serious about his new girlfriend, Denise (Gabrielle Union). Jackson interacts with several other women in the film, including his mom (Jenifer Lewis), sister (Tatyana Ali), and shrink, as well as a recurring and singularly unsubtle nightmare figure, a woman in a wedding dress who holds a gun on him. All the women appear to be pushing him to grow up and “be a man,” and he’s still trying to decide what that means, for him. The Nightmare Bride looks to be one mightily unsubtle embodiment of his anxiety, but by the end, she actually takes this often entertaining, mostly unsurprising, but ultimately rewarding film to another level, namely, male melodrama that borders on Ally-McBealism.