Grade: C

Slick but superficial, Gary Hardwick’s debut feature, a comedy-drama about a group of young, upwardly-mobile black professionals in contemporary Los Angeles trying to cope with the demands of relationships and commitment, has a number of good elements: sporadically snappy dialogue, a roster of extremely attractive stars, a few nifty secondary turns, technical polish and, for the most part, swift, no-nonsense pacing. Unfortunately “The Brothers” also has problems: the script never delves very deeply into its characters, and when it tries to get serious, it turns mushy and soapoperatic. Ultimately, apart from a stream of hard language and occasionally steamy situations, it resembles a flashy television show, with moments of pure sitcom cuteness alternating with episodes of melodrama so stilted that they wouldn’t seem out of place on an afternoon sudser. The picture is considerably less than the sum of its strengths.

“The Brothers,” as the title implies, centers on four buddies, all approaching thirty, who meet periodically to play some basketball and talk over their lives. The first among equals is Jackson (Morris Chestnut), a doctor who has recurrent nightmares about being shot by a bride until he meets a woman he thinks he can really commit to–Denise (Gabrielle Union), a bright, sprightly photographer. His pal Derrick (D.L. Hughley) is married with a young daughter, but his wife Sheila (Tamala Jones) is reluctant to give him the intimacy he needs. Lawyer Brian (Bill Bellamy) is a confirmed bachelor and lady’s man; he still lives in the old neighborhood, has family issues with his mom (Aloma Wright), and is being stalked by lovers he’s previously angered while trying to hook up with new girls. And Terry (Shemar Moore) has just gotten engaged to BeBe (Susan Dalian), to Brian’s consternation. The circle expands to include Jackson’s divorced mother, an extroverted woman with strong opinions (Jenifer Lewis), his liberated sister (Tatyana Ali) and his estranged father (Clifton Powell), as well as Derrick’s elderly mom (Marla Gibbs), Brian’s younger brother (Sean P. Young) and a gaggle of girls who chase the lawyer, for one reason or another.

Mostly what all of these characters do is talk to one another: “The Brothers” is basically a gabfest, often (when the guys are riffing on the court, for example) sounding like a succession of stand-up comedy routines, sometimes (when the guys and girls are conversing) coming across like a compendium of pop-psychology cliches, and occasionally (as when Jackson and his father finally confront one another) resembling bad soap opera. A few of the situations, and more of the throwaway lines, are quite funny, but the attempt to meld the disparate elements into a coherent whole doesn’t work. And the dialogue throughout is so peppered with vulgarity that it might unnecessarily alienate some viewers who otherwise would find the story interesting. Nor, ultimately, does the picture provide anything but the easiest, most obvious answers; the final sequence, set at a wedding reception, is all too banal, tying up the plot strands in an entirely predictable way.

Still, the movie’s tolerable simply because Hardwick writes some good lines and keeps the action moving at a fairly brisk pace, and because the cast is so strong. Chestnut, Hughley, Bellamy and Moore are all likable and engaging fellows, and each is given at least a couple of moments to shine. Union is very attractive and quite persuasive, though her character seems muffled. Powell is smooth as Jackson’s dad (even if he does have to say, at one point, “I’m still your father, and you’re not going to talk to me that way!”–a line that really needs retirement), but Lewis comes on too strong as his mother. It was also nice to see Marla Gibbs, the sharp-tongued maid from “The Jeffersons,” again–even if only briefly. Her comic timing is still superb. The music score, supervised by Melodee Sutton, throbs too insistently in the background in a failed attempt to suggest sophistication and lushness.

It’s certainly good to watch a picture about African-American friends that doesn’t involve a lot of gangsta business and gunplay, and in which any mention of drugs is blissfully absent. And Hardwick’s occasionally sharp writing and mostly efficient direction mark him as a filmmaker to watch. But despite these positive elements, and the efforts of a personable cast, “The Brothers” too often comes across like one of those clumsily meaningful TV talk shows that try to provide psychological support for people in distress. It’s characteristic that the picture opens with Jackson confiding in his prissy analyst, who offers him the profound advice that he should try to get to know and like a woman before getting intimate with her. Unfortunately, much of Hardwick’s film is on that same pedestrian level. But there are moments that suggest he’s capable of something better. We can only hope he’ll fulfill their promise in due course.