EVERYBODY knows the freaky happenings jump off at weddings. They are a ritual confluence of women in tight dresses, groomsmen on the make and Uncle Morris doing the electric slide. Drama, love and great sexpectations. And in the hilarious romantic comedy "The Best Man," add to the mix a few secrets better left untold -- not to mention unwritten, unpublished and definitely unread by the groom.

This smart debut from filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee, cousin to the film's producer, Spike, centers around a group of old friends who reunite in New York for a wedding. Tapping into the Zeitgeist of young black professionals starving to see themselves on film, it hits all the right cultural touchstones: from BET to Stevie Wonder, Chubb Rock to bid whist. Although the film is produced by Spike Lee, don't expect racial politics. And while comparisons to another black wedding-themed movie starring Taye Diggs, "The Wood," are bound to come up, resist.

As we peek behind the scenes at a bachelor party and eavesdrop on some soul-to-soul free associating over a game of cards, the movie reveals something we seldom see. Ambience, smart, sharp dialogue and characters who care deeply, but still call each other on their petty, macho shortcomings, make it a kind of "Big Chill" for black folks..

Taye Diggs ("How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "The Wood"), with abdominal muscles like the speed bumps in a high school parking lot, stars as the title character, bookish, commitment-shy Harper Stewart, an author whose characters bear a strong resemblance to his buddies.

Although his novel, "Unfinished Business," hasn't been released, former almost-flame Jordan, played hot and determined by Nia Long ("Soul Food"), has scored an advance copy that is making its way through the wedding party. It turns out to be a real page-turner for these college chums, who are searching for answers and find plenty. They see themselves, warts and all, in the pages, and some see a way to rewrite their stories. Jordan, a television producer who missed her chance to get busy with Harper in college, is determined to get him horizontal before his girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan) arrives for the wedding.

Morris Chestnut ("Boyz N the Hood," "G.I. Jane") plays the groom, Lance, a pro football player who is hoping that marriage to his sweet college girlfriend Mia (Monica Calhoun) will cure his womanizing.

The cast is rounded out perfectly by Murch (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a boho who desperately needs a little backbone to stand up to his girlfriend Shelby, and Quentin (Terrence Howard), a pimp-daddy playa, who is so blazingly funny we want him spun off into his own TV show.

The male characters in "The Best Man" especially resonate, each representing a facet of black manhood that is typically obscured by the tired, recycled gangsta-thug-get-the-ho-make-the-money stories moviegoers are constantly served.

Howard's Quentin comes closest to this stereotype but deepens the character: He is at once vulgar and vulnerable, capable of insight and introspection. And ready to shed a tear during the vows, which makes for the best kind of keeping it real.

In the world of popular Hollywood cinema, black characters rarely seem to be more than cardboard cutouts: the requisite hoodlum, ghetto goddess or chief of security. Not so in "The Best Man." You know these dudes. You grew up with them, went to school with them. Maybe even married one of them. They are ethnic without being trite and one-dimensional; their stories, about embracing adulthood, taking on responsibility and paying the overdue bills for past imperfections, seem universal.

And while it would be special to get as much nuance into the female characters -- Shelby (Melissa DeSousa) particularly is a black American princess caricature -- alas, it is clear they provide little more than laughs and window dressing as the brothers work out some kind of postmodern, post-N.W.A. angst.

The film's ending will no doubt be rehashed in barber shops, sports bars and dorm rooms for a long time to come. "The Best Man" raises the classic question, "What would you do if . . . ?" And while maybe it glosses over some of the answers a little, it is so good to hear and so pretty to look at that it still manages to feel like some kind of honeymoon.

THE BEST MAN (R, 121 minutes) -- Contains profanity, adult situations and semi-nudity. Area theaters.