"A weak man can be a pack of trouble for any family," L'Tisha Morton (Vanessa Williams) warns her elder son, Isaiah (Rodney Henry). The same goes for scripts and movies. Directed and written by Anthony Lover, "My Brother" is brimming with would-be life lessons. But the movie goes in so many directions, and follows through on so few of them, that all it transmits is a vague glow. It's watered-down chicken soup for the soul.
As children, Isaiah and his brother, James (Donovan Jennings), are raised with a loving but firm hand. As orphaned adults in present-day Brooklyn, the brothers, played by Nashawn Kearse and Christopher Scott, find their mother's words hard to live up to. Isaiah is an aspiring stand-up comedian, although given the few glimpses of his pitiful stage act, he'd be best advised to stick to his day job. That is, if he had a day job. James is a straight arrow, a steady earner who goes to church while his brother works on his material. So that we don't miss the parallel, the movie cuts between Isaiah bombing onstage at a comedy club and James beatifically listening to a church choir.
It would be a simple matter for James to take care of his big brother, were James not developmentally disabled. (The character is diagnosed only as "special" and "mildly different"; both actors who play the role have Down syndrome.) Isaiah cannot look after himself, and the burden of looking after James seems to be more than he can bear.
So far, so potentially poignant. When a friend advises Isaiah that the only way to make it as a stand-up is to "talk more about your personal experiences," the movie's path seems clear. Isaiah will, after much soul-searching and perhaps a few wrong moves, make peace with his adult responsibilities and embrace his brother once and for all. Cue song. Fade out.
But then "My Brother" takes the first of several hairpin turns. Eager for some quick cash, Isaiah sets up a meeting with some shady Middle Eastern types. (Although it is careful to paint its African American characters with respect, the movie seems to have no qualms about employing Arab stereotypes that would give the producers of "24" pause.) Tasked with exchanging one mysterious package for another during a party at an African embassy, Isaiah -- left turn No. 2 -- bumps into Erica (Tatum O'Neal), a chatty translator who greets him with, "Isaiah, the most political and universal of all the prophets." So, uh, do you come here often?
What this has to do with Isaiah's bid for self-determination is open to question, especially since their interaction seems to be missing several crucial scenes. One second, she's charming her way into his car; the next, he's telling a friend about their ride back to the city.
Stingy as the movie is with that storyline, it's far too generous with its childhood flashbacks, especially an undigested half-hour chunk that lands at the halfway mark. The actors playing young Isaiah and James give the movie's two best performances, but Williams lacks the grit and gumption to play a steely Southern matriarch. (It doesn't help that Anna Deavere Smith's far more compelling performance in a similar role is currently on view in the HBO movie "Life Support.") With her sanctified nostrums and tubercular cough, L'Tisha is a figure out of 19th century literature, but "My Brother" falls victim to a very 21st century inability to stick to the point.
"My Brother." MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images and language. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In selected theaters.