J Lo’s return to the big screen is more tearjerker than romantic comedy
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Jennifer Lopez in a theatrical release. The last time she appeared (physically) on the big screen was 2015’s The Boy Next Door, the campy and disappointingly “wet blanket” underage infidelity thriller starring Ryan Guzman. Second Act is being sold as a return to the heyday of Lopez’s rom-com movie career a la 2005’s Monster-In-Law, 2002’s Maid in Manhattan and 2001’s The Wedding Planner but the truth is that it’s definitively not a romantic comedy or a particularly good movie. What it is is a decent tearjerker with a really muddled script, as well as a perfect vanity project for its diva starlet.
In the film, Lopez gets to showcase both of her public personalities: her Bronx-born “Jenny from the Block” side and her glamourous, booty-for-days diva with the wardrobe-to-die-for persona.
Second Act opens with Jennifer Lopez’s Maya as she runs to Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold of Me”, intercut with stock footage of the Big Apple. Just in case, you know, you didn’t guess that Maya is A REGULAR NEW YORKER. Seconds later, boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, sporting his This Is Us molestache) offers her a birthday cupcake and shower sex. Afterwards, as she prepares for an important job interview, Trey reassures her of her worth and they joke about her sexual objectification of his ass (their words, not mine). It’s all very salt-of-the-earth, regular person fantasy porn – up to and including Lopez’s giant Farrah Fawcett feathered hairdo.
It’s all very salt-of-the-earth, regular person fantasy porn
Later, when Maya has lied her way into a consulting job with a high-powered cosmetics company (complete with charge card, insanely large corporate apartment and posse of weirdo underlings) Maya vamps around in skin-tight bandage dresses with her hair professionally trimmed and straightened. At one point, she even unexpectedly performs a perfect Tango with a lecherous opponent that plays entirely like an opportunity for Lopez to show off both her rocking body and her infamous dance moves. It’s all in stark contrast to her humble roots and, were this any other film, the impossibly glammed up movie star look/persona would be positioned as “the wrong” fit and Maya would have to find her way back to her legitimate self.
Second Act does make an (admittedly weak) attempt to restore Maya’s original selfhood, but it is pretty half assed (in one of the final scenes she wears brand name athletic wear that essentially looks like J.Lo ducked out of a real life photoshoot). It’s as though the film and its multi-talented executive producer can’t quite bring itself to admit that Jennifer Lopez is anything other than a mega star.
I raise Second Act’s odd tension with Maya’s two personas because the film seems uncertain of itself and what story it wants to tell. Lopez anchors the film and keeps it enjoyable with her warmth, her charm and her star power, but the film is a big ol’ mess of different ideas that clash or go nowhere.
The first act is the strongest. Maya is introduced as a hard-working, ambitious and creative woman middle manager at a Walmart-like store. Her friends, including profane single mom Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini) are loyal and supportive and boyfriend Trey is impossibly hot and family-oriented. Unfortunately Maya’s happiness is overshadowed by her desire to advance professionally… and a dark history that isn’t so much introduced as parachuted in in the second act to completely derail the film.
When Maya is passed over for a big promotion, Joan’s Stanford-bound oldest son creates a fake CV and online identity that lands Maya an interview at a Madison Ave cosmetics company. Suddenly ensnarled in a lie, Maya is swept up in a corporate race with the boss (Treat Williams)’ competitive daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) and her team to develop an organic cosmetic line.
[The film’s second act] introduces a narrative contrivance that overwhelms the plot
Were this the main thrust of the film, it would resemble a film from a bygone era, when movies featured women struggling to juggle career aspirations and love affairs were far more common. It would also undoubtedly be a much more successful film.
Unfortunately in its *ahem* second act, Second Act introduces a narrative contrivance that, while not completely out of the blue, overwhelms the plot and sends the film spinning in a very different direction for the majority of the run time. The cosmetic product race, the corporate espionage angle and Maya’s increasing distance from her old life and friends takes a backseat to this “dark back story” plot.
What’s odd is that this latter storyline is actually quite compelling and provides nearly all of the film’s emotional set pieces, but because screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas refused to edit or prioritize, Second Act winds up feeling bloated and overstuffed. It’s trying to do too much, but it’s not executed well enough to make it all work.
In some ways, the film plays like an upscale Hallmark movie: harried career woman embarks on a new career on the basis of a lie, converting naysayers and overcoming adversity while also finding herself. It’s also, however, a completely separate Hallmark special about a dark past and a secret family. Throw in a deep bench of supporting characters – several with their own B- and C-plots, and the film’s messy structural problems are readily apparently.
Bottom Line: For fans of Jennifer Lopez fans and/or those looking for an “okay” tear jerker, Second Act is perfectly respectable entertainment. Alas the inherent messiness makes this one skippable for everyone else.