In its own quiet way, "The Other Brother" offers a welcome alternative to the standard sex 'n' booty African-American comedy. Neither ambitious nor stylistically notable, pic nevertheless is a promising debut for writer-producer-director Mandel Holland.

In its own quiet way, “The Other Brother” offers a welcome alternative to the standard sex ‘n’ booty African-American comedy. Neither ambitious nor stylistically notable, pic nevertheless is a promising debut for writer-producer-director Mandel Holland, who appears more influenced by character-driven American indie cinema than by the R-rated sitcoms made by his more commercially oriented helmer brothers. There’s just enough of a sexy angle, abetted by a titillating ad campaign, to draw the target crowd, but languorous pace and a deliberate avoidance of easy laughs may lower numbers in its L.A. preem prior to eventual Gotham opening.

Outline and several details make “The Other Brother” sound like a replay of the execrable “How to Be a Player” and others of its ilk, but it’s soon apparent that the focus is on people’s inner core rather than outer curves. When Harlem-based magazine scribe Martin (Mekhi Phifer) discovers a woman in bed with his g.f., it rattles his belief in his own judgment about the other sex. His brother Junnie (Andre Blake) picks up gals like picking up the paper, and Martin reluctantly agrees to take some pointers from Junnie in the art of seduction.

With unusual patience, Holland simply observes the brothers in action and allows auds to come to their own conclusions while, as a writer, applying a good deal of subtext and attention to the natural flow of conversation. While this may infuriate some sniffing for booty jokes, it’s an approach that’s right in line with Martin’s character, a guy who talks to his plants, listens to jazz on the radio and has all the instincts of a gentleman.

Indeed, it is these instincts that clash with what Junnie preaches. But Junnie is Mr. Smooth, a man who can sweet-talk his way out of any dilemma (such as two dates on the same night), and he talks a great game to Martin, who’s desperate for guidance. Martin isn’t likely to get any help from Bobbi (Michele Morgan), a friend to both brothers, or from his mom, Mother Pearl (Ebony Jo-Ann).

When Martin literally bumps into new neighbor Paula (Tangi Miller), it does fall into the romantic-comedy formula of meeting cute, but Phifer and Miller manage to make their interaction feel spontaneous and unforced. Even the inevitable pick-up scene, when Martin finally goes after a lady (Colette Wilson) at the local nightspot, isn’t played for maximum hijinx but for a more amusing tone of awkward pauses, bad one-liners and a general pre-coital case of sweaty palms.

Just as Martin gets into trouble when he isn’t true to himself — he looks as natural as a “player” as Michael Jordan did swinging a bat — so the movie hits potholes when matters get contrived.

Keeping away from the easy temptation to overdo their characters’ opposite natures, Phifer and Blake create quite shaded roles. Even in the ill-conceived “O,” Phifer kept things contained, and in “The Other Brother,” he manages to play both Martin’s ego and id without getting histrionic. The more comic business is Blake’s metier, and he has a wry sense of how to give each line a bit of extra juice.

Miller and Jo-Ann are especially warm and inviting, while Morgan makes the most of an unusual woman in this type of movie — the friend who’s not a lover.

Production is unmistakably low-budget, and staging is sometimes uneven, with fluid cutting and movement alternating with stiff takes. Current state of pic is in telecine, which blunts the full impact of Matthew Clark’s lensing. Interesting creative choices abound, from sun-drenched Harlem locales to a soundtrack rich with distinctive jazz, blues and R&B selections that indirectly comment on the action.

The Other Brother

Production

A Xenon Pictures release and presentation of a Delflix Pictures production. Produced by Mandel Holland. Co-producers, Beverley Gordon, Lisa Pitt, Carrie Specht. Directed, written by Mandel Holland.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Matthew Clark; editor, Anna Celada; music supervisors, J.C. McCoy, Dennis Poore; production designer, Milady D. JB Hartmann; art director, Chuck Cameron; costume designer, Mildred Brignoni; sound, Johnathan Michals; supervising sound editor, Alan Gus; assistant director, Michael Pope; casting, Susan Shopmaker. Reviewed at Magic Johnson Theater, L.A., April 24, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Martin - Mekhi Phifer Junnie - Andre Blake Bobbi - Michele Morgan Paula - Tangi Miller Mother Pearl - Ebony Jo-Ann Didi - Sandra Prosper Cris Vincent - Carmen de Lavallade Joy - Collette Wilson Vicki - Regina Hall Londel - O.L. Duke Big T - Mandel Holland
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