Dir: Gary Hardwick. US. 2001. 98mins.Writer-director Gary Hardwick has dubbed The Brothers, his serio-comedy about sex, love and friendship among African-American men, 'Refusing To Exhale'. Considering the theme and tone of his movie, it is an apt label that plays upon Waiting To Exhale, the 1995 film about black middle-class females. A contemporary report from the sexual battlefront, The Brothers centres on four upscale black men at a crucial phase of their lives, when they are forced to deal with maturity and commitment. Despite its new angle and wide canvas, the comedy is too literal and schematic to make a splash at the box office. It should, though, appeal to black viewers, with stronger impact in domestic than foreign markets, where black-themed movies have a hard time reaching audiences.

The Brothers betrays Hardwick's background as a novelist and stand-up comic, for his script is too overwritten and too TV-like at delivering punchlines. Indeed, with its melodramatic sub-plots, multi-generational narrative and large ensemble, the film can serve as a pilot for a future TV sitcom.

What is striking about The Brothers is that underneath the broad humour and profane lingo lurks a serious film about men's deep-seated fear of the big C - commitment. Smart, successful and handsome, the heroes are lifelong friends, banded together to weather the terrors - and occasional triumphs - of their love lives. Though structured as an emotional journey, The Brothers is basically a coming-of-age saga, save that the characters are not teens but thirtysomethings who refuse to grow up. The novelty of Hardwick's story is that, in trying to explain the men's anxieties, the script is not confined to affairs of the heart, but delves into their family backgrounds, particularly their relationships with their mothers.

The story begins with an emergency meeting at a bar, when reformed playboy Terry (Moore) declares he has decided to tie the knot. His news is used by his friends to examine their own romantic troubles. Unlike Terry, Jackson (Chestnut) is not as reconciled with taking the plunge. Though desperate to have the lasting, meaningful relationship that his parents never had, he still clings to his more independent self.

Of the four, Derrick (Hughley) is the only married one, but he seems to be already locked into a sexually frustrating marriage. By contrast, Brian (Bellamy), a true bachelor with an aversion to relationships, sees love as an intimidating experience that makes people dangerously vulnerable.

Of the adult characters, Jackson's parents are the most fully developed. Fred (Powell), his father, is a negative role model, particularly after Jackson finds out that his dad once had a date with his current flame, Denise (Union). Jackson is also unsympathetic to his mother (Lewis), a sexually active woman, when she takes his father back after realising their post-divorce affair may not last long but still fulfils important needs.Hardwick makes good use of the outdoor locations, showing that the only place where the men find real physical and emotional release is on the basketball court. It is also here we get to eavesdrop on how men talk when women are not around. However, the novice film-maker has written overly explicit dialogue, with each emotion spelled out and contained in a schematic tale. For instance, if one couple experiences sexual problems, then the scene will be followed by a montage of the other men in bed. There is also much ado about a secret from Jackson's past, which gets overblown, threatening not only his relationship with Denise but everyone else as well.

Despite these shortcomings, Hardwick's approach is honest in handling sensitive issues seldom depicted on screen. And while all four guys come across as self-centred, their personae are more complex and layered than black characters are in most movies.

It makes sense that Hardwick would label his movie Refusing To Exhale: The Brothers serves as a contrasting companion piece to Waiting To Exhale, whose commercial success was a measure of how neglected in film its target audience had been. Saturated with images of violent youth in the 'hood, black viewers are eager to see reflected the rapidly growing black middle class and The Brothers adds an honourable panel to a sub-genre that began with love jones and The Best Man.

While less smooth and polished than those movies, The Brothers avoids pitfalls that afflicted Waiting To Exhale, a glossy woman's picture that reinvented old-fashioned formulas for the age of Oprah and whose incoherent script was torn between romantic fantasies and promoting self-empowerment. Its celebration of female camaraderie was sacrificed for the depiction of professional women who still defined themselves in terms of men; that the men were unworthy of them belittled the bright women. In contrast, the women in The Brothers are not only worthy of their men, but indispensable in helping them grow up.

Prod co: Screen Gems. US dist: Screen Gems. Int'l dist: Sony Pictures Entertainment. Exec prod: Doug McHenry. Prods: Darin Scott, Paddy Cullen. Scr: Hardwick. Cinematography: Alexander Gruszynski. Prod des: Amy Ancona. Ed: Earl Watson. Music: Melodee Sutton. Main cast: Morris Chestnut, D L Hughley, Bill Bellamy, Shemar Moore, Tamala Jones, Gabrielle Union