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Brothers, The

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16 2001 4:02 p.m. MDT

"The Brothers," a romantic comedy about the love lives of four young, successful black men, knows that family is not only limited to relatives.

These lifelong friends call each other "brother," and it's more than just slang.

Whether meeting at a party or playing basketball in the park, they find themselves saying things aloud that we suspect they don't even want to admit to themselves.

The revelations are often veiled in wisecracks and softball insults, but just beneath that surface is something important and touching to these men.

Ironically, the central conflict in most of their lives is a lack of intimacy. Many of their problems would be solved if they were as open with the women in their lives as they are with each other.

The men seems to realize this, too, but none of them wants to weaken their friendship by relying too much on a female.

Jackson Smith (Morris Chestnut) is a compassionate doctor who runs a thriving private practice and is devoted to his younger sister and mother.

He treats his family and patients with such warmth that it's apparent he would make a great father — except he flees from every love interest when the romance becomes too serious for him.

This fear of commitment stems from his parent's divorce, which devastated him even though he was a grown man when things fell apart.

"How can two people live together and share together for 25 years — and then just leave?" he asks a friend.

It's a good question in an age when marriages can dissolve in less time than it takes to plan the wedding ceremony.

Another of the friends, Brian Palmer (Bill Bellamy), is a smart-mouthed lawyer who decides to swear off black women because he thinks they carry too much emotional baggage. From now on, he tells his friends, he plans to date exclusively outside his race.

Meanwhile, Derrick West (sitcom star D.L. Hughley) is the only one who has a wife — and he's in trouble.

He married only to do the right thing after getting his girlfriend pregnant. Now, their union is near collapse.

Then comes a bombshell: the fourth friend, Terry White (Shemar Moore), announces he plans to marry a woman who dislikes his three pals.

This could be the end of the brotherhood.

It's undeniable that director-writer Gary Hardwick's "The Brothers" has a target demographic. But the movie's themes of family, love and friendship are universal.

And the brothers are strong, wealthy and educated — they're not ghetto denizens a la "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace II Society."

Without the dangers of drugs and violence, the brothers are free to deal with issues higher on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

"The Brothers" is rated R for simulated sex, scattered strong profanity and use of crude sexual slang terms and racial epithets. Running time: 110 minutes