By: Steve Pulaski
What's more disappointing than the fact that the effervescent Jennifer Lopez is again saddled with a B-rate script that is Second Act is how quickly the movie ditches its promising themes for implausible shenanigans and plot contrivances. Instead of embracing a story about a society that looks down on those who lack higher education, more-or-less disqualifying them from achieving upward mobility, we must endure a millennial update of Working Girl, which is far less compelling.
While no one is going to argue that Lopez is a generational acting talent, and in recent years, her name has become her biggest brand above any of her movie roles or dated pop songs, she has strong charisma that frequently translates to her projects. For the record, I can't think of someone who has tried on a handful of hats in their film career and has come away with less of a highlight reel, largely due to no fault of her own. She's been in romance movies, such as Maid in Manhattan and Jersey Girl, thrillers like Anaconda and The Boy Next Door, animated films from Antz to the more recent batch of Ice Age sequels, and biographical works such as El Cantante and Selena. It's against all odds that most of her film projects are either forgettable or uncharacteristic, mostly due to generic writing.
You can add Second Act to that list. The film revolves around Lopez's Maya Vargas, the assistant manager of a big-box store who has big dreams after working at the same location for 15 years. We open as she tries to impress her boss (Larry Miller) with hopes of getting promoted to general manager, but instead, he surprises her by gifting the position to a kiss-ass team player (Dan Bucatinsky) with an Ivy League degree. Maya didn't go to college; she got her GED years later, but she's put a good chunk of her life into the store, bringing in money and earning the respect of her colorful co-workers. Her boss sees her unfit for the job almost exclusively because of her lack of a college degree.
Stuck in neutral with her job and just as quickly left single when her boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia) calls it off, her close friend, Joan (Leah Remini, a friend of Lopez's in real life), tries to offer moral support while her savvy son gives Maya, his godmother, a digital makeover. He compiles a huge portfolio of falsified social media accounts, a BS résumé, and photoshopped photos that flaunt her many "accomplishments," such as graduating from Harvard and scaling Mount Everest. Both flattered yet apprehensive to make use of any of it, all this new content lands her a job interview and subsequently a cushy position at an upscale cosmetics company in Manhattan. It's there where she competes with the younger, competitive Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), who we get the idea could've been Maya had she been afforded the opportunity to go to college.
Screenwriters Elaine Goldsmith and Justin Zackham (The Bucket List) lay the ostensible foundation quite nicely in the first 15 minutes, but quickly dog-pile subplots and narrative threads, such as a hokey adoption story and Maya's checkered past. Most likely, Second Act began as a film intended to comment on female visibility in the workplace and the stigma that lacking a higher education makes advancement in large companies virtually impossible. However, due to the heftiness of that subject, not to mention it being seen as a "tough sell" in the eyes of stiff movie executives, writers-for-hire were tapped and a handful of their brainstormed ideas tailored to make a more predictable, formulaic narrative were hamfisted into the story. And such, a film without focus and one that never finds a balance was birthed, squandering its potential for relevance long after it leaves the theaters and is destined to fill time during the Sunday afternoon cable lineup.
Lopez looks like she's having fun and embracing the character, something capable performers do even with a weak script, but the film doesn't allow for her to cut loose and have fun nearly enough. Consider a scene when Maya's friends are dancing to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" in the kitchen while she is in the other room, squeezing her shapely figure into a pencil-skirt for her first day at her new job. When Maya emerges, trying to remain composed with her "eyes on the prize," so to speak, her friends' dancing and energy become infectious to the point where she starts to shimmy around the room too. It's these moments where Lopez is effective, albeit on a surface level, but one can't deny that her charm is contagious and she can liven a room simply by walking into it. Second Act needed more confidence in its heroine's ability to generate comic momentum and spontaneous fun rather than saddling her and her story-arc with all this needless plot.
Second Act is ultimately all work and no play, building on an aggressively fine but otherwise misguided connection between Maya and Zoe without redirecting its energy on the more significant component of its premise. By offering a preposterous coincidence in its story, the film takes a total 180 in the wrong direction, all but cementing its legacy as another unworthy footnote in the career of someone like Lopez who, even if she isn't super-critical, should be more choosy with her roles.