Fall of Usher

In the Mix can't keep up with its likable star.

What the hell happened to director Ron Underwood? Not that he was ever a master of the craft, but his City Slickers and Tremors were fine pieces of entertainment. And then … Pluto Nash? Maybe the guy should only make films about wannabe cowboys, because In the Mix, while not the financial disaster Pluto Nash was, is in the same league artistically. It’s not exactly atrocious, but it constantly makes you wonder why those involved couldn’t find something better to do.

The main problem is that no one seems sure what In the Mix is supposed to be. Its poster features the R&B star Usher, and its title implies that the story is music-based. So does it cash in on Usher’s vocal talent? Nope. It briefly cashes in on his appeal to most women on the planet, but even that thread gets dropped. Then there’s a turn toward mafia comedy, à la Mickey Blue Eyes or Analyze This. All of these switches seem half-hearted — which is a shame, because the star has the charm to succeed if given a better movie.

Usher plays popular nightclub DJ Darrell, who gets an offer to spin at the birthday party of old childhood friend Dolly (Emmanuelle Chriqui, who previously starred opposite *NSYNC’s Lance Bass in On the Line). Darrell hasn’t seen Dolly in years, but agrees to do the party for free as a favor to her father, Frank (Chazz Palminteri, looking more like Walter Koenig every day). See, Darrell’s late father was Frank’s favorite personal bartender. Dolly has grown up to be a total hottie, and for extra “laughs,” her brother (Anthony Fazio) is now a white-boy hip-hop poser, doing a bit that was already getting stale when Jamie Kennedy grabbed hold of it.

Frank is a successful Italian American businessman, which, in the movies, means he’s obviously in the Mafia — the king of the south side, even; this is a film so obvious in its broad strokes that there’s actually a character named Fat Tony (screenwriter Jacqueline Zambrano is allegedly the daughter of a mob boss, but nothing here rings true). During Dolly’s party, unnamed assailants attempt a drive-by shooting of Frank, but Darrell takes the bullet instead. He is then nursed back to health at Frank’s rural estate. Eventually, when Frank insists that Dolly select a bodyguard from anyone in the house, she chooses Darrell, in hopes he’ll simply do whatever she says. But Darrell is honor-bound by his dead dad to help Frank out, and insists on doing the whole bodyguard bit the right way. (Think Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, with reversed genders, races, and singing skills.)

Since Darrell is a black man and Dolly is an Italian American woman (played by a French Canadian), we get some enlightening cultural cross-pollination, such as: “I heard black men can dance!” followed by “Yeah, well, I heard Italian women can get you in trouble!” D&D bond over the similarities between grits and polenta — turns out she’s one of these only-in-the-movies beautiful women who actually likes being taken to cheap dive restaurants and backyard cookouts rather than anyplace fancy or expensive. (You have to look like Usher to pull that off, though.)

If you haven’t learned your Spike Lee well enough to know that “Moulan Yan” is a nasty Italian word for a black person, you get an actual definition of it here (it means “eggplant”). It’s a pretty handy tip-off as to the evilness of a henchman named Jackie (Matt Gerald), who also smokes, which is doubly evil onscreen these days. You just know he’s gonna find a way to screw up their romance … and maybe worse. Maybe? Hell … it’s not as if anything here is actually capable of being unpredictable.

If you know a teenage girl who adores Usher, her money may be well spent just to glimpse his abs and melt at his smile. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wishing he’d put his obvious charisma into the service of something worthwhile. Palminteri must be hurting for work to resort to this kind of stock stereotype (hey, look — the Mafia guy likes making spaghetti sauce!). Chriqui has made bad movies that are at least marginally better than this (like Snow Day, in which she wore a see-through bathing suit). And Kevin Hart, who plays Darrell’s best friend, may want to find his own shtick instead of retreading Chris Tucker’s.

As for director Underwood, maybe he should give Jack Palance and Billy Crystal a buzz to see if they’ll do a City Slickers 3. That’s assuming they still take his calls.

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