It’s hard to be mad at Usher. But you have to wonder what went through his or anyone else’s head during the production of In the Mix, an alarmingly conventional and inept interracial romance. Playing the sweet-as-can-be Darrell, NYC DJ and aspiring music producer, Usher is about as pleasant and innocuous and hard-abbed as you’d expect. But who the heck are those cardboard figures bopping their heads in the background?
Scripted by Jacqueline Zambrano and directed by the freefalling Ron Underwood, In the Mix offers up a sampling of stereotypes in no particular order, then leaves them stranded. They’re granted no coherent context or tone—the movie lumbers from comedy to romance to violent mobster antics—and so they can only be stereotypes, unconsidered and dreary.
Darrell is introduced while working at a dance club alongside his aspiring music production partner Busta (Kevin Hart). While Busta is interested in all the “fly honeys” he can get his hands on, Darrell seems to be looking for the “right” girl. This even as he brings home the most bodacious fly honey in the place, golddigging Cherise (K.D. Aubert), who breathes heavily into his ear, only to be interrupted by his six-year-old next door neighbor. Lexi (Isis Faust) is certainly cute enough in her pajamas to earn Darrell’s attention, but he’s strangely okay with her lying to Cherise about another girl. Must be that he’s not really so interested in her anyway.
This lack of interest in Cherise is the movie’s way of “saving” Darrell for that right girl, namely, a gangster’s daughter named Dolly (Emmanuelle Chriqui). That’s gangster as in “this Sicilian thing,” here embodied by Dolly’s daddy Frank (Chazz Palminteri). She comes home from law school on break and he wants to do it up right, and invites Darell to DJ the party. As Darrell’s dad was once Frank’s bartender, they’ve got a familial connection, as well as a class and race imbalance that Frank keeps covering over with something approximating genuine affection. (That said, he’s equally as unbelievable with his daughter, as they are extremely gushy, repeatedly telling each other how much they love each other while gazing into each other’s eyes—the most egregious disjunction here being the fact that she’s a law student and he’s a gangster, like, a professional killer.)
Frank’s affection for Darrell does not extend to even imagining his daughter’s desire for him (he is the “help,” after all, or spawn of the help). During the party, a driveby shooting narrowly misses Frank, thanks to Darrell literally and slow-motionly throwing himself in front of the bullet. Frank is impressed enough that he allows Dolly to select him as her bodyguard (dad had suggested one of his own meatheads, but she didn’t want to be seen with someone so uncool). Hired as a bodyguard/driver, Darrell gets a new suit made by Frank’s tailor (who complains mightily and predictably about Darrell’s baggy drawers, leading in turn to Darrell’s warning not to make the new pants too tight, to avoid crushing his “junk”).
The real fun starts when Dolly, who did request Darrell’s services, decides she really wants him not to serve, but rather, to wait in the car while she takes her yoga class or lunches with her shallow girlfriends. But noooo. Darrell imagines himself being “true to his word” to Frank, and so accompanies her everywhere. And so, Dolly, resents that Darrell “fits in” everywhere: her yoga teacher and girlfriends (did I mention they’re shallow?) all admire his buff body and charming manner. But once D and D spend a few minutes in the swimming pool at night—and she gets a look at Usher’s famous torso—she apparently falls in love, and decides to pursue him, despite her father’s objections, or, for that matter, Darrell’s (he sticks to his story of keeping his word to Frank as long as he can).
Dolly, by the way, already has a boyfriend (Geoff Stults), but he’s shallow too, which suggests that her choices in acquaintances are somewhat less than stellar. The boyfriend’s name is Chad, he’s an egregiously ambitious lawyer who wants to make inroads with her father (for unexplained reasons, both Dolly and Chad overlook the fact that her father is a criminal).
The film is bogged down by awkward scene transitions, ridiculous dialogue (“I heard black men can dance,” purrs Dolly on the dance floor, just before Usher [!] professes that he’s not very good but he’ll try), and one-dimensional supporting characters, like Frank’s too-eager gunsel Jackie (Matt Gerald, fond of smoking cigarettes so he can flick them meanly and eyeing Frank with a mix of respect and disdain while complaining at whatever latest decision: “Bawsss!”) and his son, Frank Jr. (Anthony Fazio), the white boy who acts “hip-hop” (by channeling Jamie Kennedy).
The goofiest material comes late, and by that time, you’re desperate to laugh, or find some relief. A showdown finally occurs between “secret” villains you’ll spot from a mile off and Darrell, seeking to protect his woman with the use of the sound system in his club. Here Darrell’s shot again, and as he lies bleeding on the floor, cradled by Dolly and wincing prettily, he utters the film’s grandest line: “If growing up in the hood is so dangerous, then why is it I only get shot by white people?” Why indeed?