A film called O has been waiting to unspool for a year or more now. Because the movie is a high school retelling of the homicidal Othello, every time an unhappy adolescent blows away some of his schoolmates it gets pushed back again. But the flick faces a bigger perception problem than any connection it might have with current events. This is the age of Oprah, so who’s going to think of Othello when he hears the title O?

For Oprah viewers (and their fellow travelers), love is a mystery that must be decipherable, if only by discovering the right set of rules. And in the spring, a movie executive’s fancy lightly turns to ways to exploit this enduring interest in romance. Thus The Brothers, The Price of Milk, and—next week—Someone Like You, all films in which a woman is certain she’s finally cracked Eros’ code.

The Brothers has been described as the male Waiting to Exhale, that Oprah-era fable about the romantic travails of a quartet of over-30 African-American women. At a rap session, one of The Brothers’ four brothers calls the 1995 hit Breathe, Bitch—a crack that exemplifies writer-director Gary Hardwick’s approach: He wants his movie to be raucous, irreverent, and a little nasty, but he ultimately upholds the primacy of monogamy and the love of a good (black) woman.

The four title characters are Jackson Smith (Morris Chestnut), a doctor who literally has nightmares about commitment; body-building ex-playboy Terry White (Shemar Moore), who shocks his buddies by announcing his engagement; businessman Derrick West (D.L. Hughley), whose marriage is disintegrating because his wife, Sheila (Tamala Jones), won’t give him a blowjob; and lawyer Brian Palmer (Bill Bellamy), a philanderer who’s violating the movie’s biggest taboo by dating a blonde.

But the central dilemma is assigned to Jackson, whose fear of matrimony is partially explained by the acrimonious relationship between his divorced parents, Louise (Jenifer Lewis) and Fred (Clifton Powell). Jackson meets the perfect woman, beautiful photographer Denise (Gabrielle Union), only to discover that Denise once dated Fred. Meanwhile, Sheila kicks Derrick out, Terry begins to panic over his upcoming nuptials, and Brian learns that a fling with a white woman can be just as hard to end as one with a sister. The outcome is never seriously in doubt; even the movie’s surprises—such as the unforeseen-wedding finale—are well-worn Hollywood gambits.

The guys get together regularly to shoot hoops, utter earthy put-downs of the opposite sex, and reveal their sensitive sides—Plato’s Symposium on an L.A. basketball court. Still, the director apparently didn’t think he could build a love-talk movie entirely around the innermost feelings of a species as brutish as men. So he introduces another conclave, headed by Louise and including Denise, Sheila, and Jackson’s sister, Cherie (Tatyana Ali); Louise counsels the younger women that a man who’s truly in love will give his paramour the last bite of food, a bit of high-calorie wisdom that Hardwick laboriously expands into a motif. But then, this is a movie in which even the hookers hired for Terry’s bachelor party come equipped with cable-talk-show relationship tips: “A man can’t make his dick do what his heart can’t handle,” explains one bikini-clad philosopher.

The balance the film tries to achieve is not between dicks and hearts, however, let alone minds. Although sometimes reminiscent of predecessors such as Love Jones and The Best Man, the movie more often juxtaposes pure love and raw sex with Farrellys-like calculation. Hardwick, however, would never dare muss his characters’ fancy wardrobes, luxury apartments, or expensive cars with bodily fluids. The movie’s first local preview was sponsored by Upscale magazine, which pretty much says

it all. The Brothers is, above all, about people who can afford to dither

about romance.

The Price of Milk is altogether quirkier than The Brothers—which is not necessarily a good thing. Set in a world of agrarian enchantment, it’s the parable of a woman who risks a solid relationship by tinkering with it. Rob (Karl Urban) loves Lucinda (Danielle Cormack), their agoraphobic dog, and his 117 cows, and the 120 of them live happily together in a lightly populated corner of New Zealand. Rob proposes to Lucinda as they bathe in an open-air tub, but she worries that the spark has already gone out of their romance. So she goes for advice to her pot-smoking friend Drosophilia (Willa O’Neill), who counsels Lucinda to spice things up by making Rob angry at her. Never take relationship advice from a woman named for an insect species.

Lucinda does indeed provoke Rob, jumping into a vat of milk and thus ruining it. The poor sap quickly forgives her, however, and hops into the tank with her. The real crisis begins when Lucinda’s prize quilt vanishes, apparently stolen by a local Maori woman who’s supposed to be some sort of magical trickster. Lucinda trades all 117 cows to get the quilt back—a deal that Rob does not accept. He loses his voice, his will to live, and his sympathy for Lucinda’s childish antics.

And who can blame him? Rob has lost his livelihood, all because Lucinda—who believes in a magical race of little people called the Jacksons—is headstrong and unrealistic. But perhaps it’s Rob who doesn’t understand the rules of the alternate universe he lives in. He ends up in the arms of Drosophilia—who might be considered treacherous if there were any moral quotient in The Price of Milk’s magical-realist world—unaware that Lucinda is secretly watching over him. In director Harry Sinclair’s estimation, the only virtues are love and mischief, which is why the unbearable Lucinda is his principal character. And why we’re supposed to accept his depiction of larcenous dark-skinned troublemakers as playful rather than offensive.

Although he did write the dialogue, scripting on a day-to-day basis, Sinclair didn’t take a screenplay credit because he improvised the film’s scenario during the course of a relaxed shoot, which transpired over seven months. The director was originally inspired by New Zealand’s verdant countryside and the fairy-tale music of Russian composers such as Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov, and the scenery and music are well-represented in the finished movie. The original European fairy tales have bite, though, whereas everything in this film—from car crashes to romantic betrayal—is presented merely as cute. Sinclair seems to think that he’s taken a bold stand against cynicism, but cynicism is the only logical response to The Price of Milk’s callow sense of wonder. CP