- Second Act
- Classification: PG; 103 minutes
- Directed by Peter Segal
- Written by Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas
- Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa Hudgens and Leah Remini
Jennifer Lopez has always been an important figure for the rom-com. While she’s never again been able to obtain a role that showed off her innate charisma and intelligence like her unbelievable breakthrough in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she’s made a comfortable living playing determined working women on the low end of the totem pole … despite looking like Jennifer Lopez. Her long trajectory of workplace romantic comedies such as Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner placed a woman of colour centre stage, even vaguely hinting at issues of race and class beyond a patina of WASPy-ness and wedding dresses.
Second Act is an attempt to revitalize the J. Lo brand and put the now 49-year-old triple threat and one-woman industry back on the big screen. The film feels as finely tailored to J. Lo as the booty-enhancing pencil skirts she wears throughout the movie: Second Act’s Maya from Queens is our Jenny from the Block.
This late-in-life Working Girl corporate fantasy begins with Maya on the eve of her climatic 40th birthday. She has a doting shirtless boyfriend named Trey who wants to marry her and start a family (This is Us’s Milo Ventimiglia, who can only say cloying dialogue like: “You let me fall in love with a version of you, and no relationship can be built on a lie”), an amazing best friend, Joan (Leah Remini who, freed from the shackles of Scientology, deserves a star rehabilitation vehicle of her own), and a job she’s devoted her entire life to. But Maya wants more ... dare we even say it? To have it all.
After spending 15 years climbing the corporate ladder of a discount superstore, she asks to be promoted to the manager position only to be usurped by a smarmy white guy with an MBA from Duke. “I wish we lived in a world where street smarts equaled book smarts,” Maya tearfully says to her best friend’s son over a slice of birthday cake, her mascara seeping onto the frosting. Since this is a movie that follows Save the Cat!-style screenplay structure to the letter, Maya’s wish is the movie’s command.
Joan’s brilliant son doctors her resume, pretending that this high school dropout is now a Harvard graduate and close personal friend of the Obamas, and applies in her name for a coveted consultant position at a beauty cosmetics firm that comes with all the trappings: a Bergdorf’s credit card, a fancy condo, a corner office in a high-rise tower with a dutiful assistant (Annaleigh Ashford) and a team of misfit chemists (Charlyne Yi, Alan Aisenberg). Will Maya rise to her potential despite her sense of impostor syndrome actually being warranted this time?
Second Act is an unusual movie for many reasons. Foremost, it comes with a bait-and-switch plot twist that throws every assumption audiences will have out the window within the first 45 minutes. (It shan’t be spoiled here but it is discombobulating.) And interestingly enough, all of Maya’s most important relationships and defining story arcs are with women, while her boyfriend and boss are pushed to the near periphery. In fact, none of the usual corporate rom-com plot points (as seen in, say, Legally Blonde) occur in Second Act, even though this movie is directed by hoary Hollywood veteran Peter Segal (50 First Dates, Get Smart, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps).
A professional rivalry with her younger colleague (Vanessa Hudgens) is squashed in nearly minutes. There is no #MeToo moment with a male mentor when Maya starts killing it at work. Her handsome boyfriend doesn’t force her to choose between him and her career. They won’t even give us an adorable pup with which to punctuate trying moments with sympathetic animal reaction shots! (The truly unconscionable J. Lo film The Back-up Plan, which is one of the most misogynist movies ever made, did all this and more.)
Instead, Maya finds a way to support other women while accepting their help too, and never relies on her sexuality to get ahead. She uses her street smarts to do the hard work of understanding why her dissatisfaction is actually related to motherhood, not her career. And while so many other rom-coms question “having it all” with scorn and derision, turning ambitious females into tightly-wound stereotypes or shrews, Second Act takes some time to actually sit with the melancholy of sacrificing one identity and facet of the female experience for another. While this causes the film to have significant tonal issues and a confusing trajectory, this flawed workplace rom-com should be commended for examining the hard truths of women’s lives after 40. Lopez’s soulful performance has a lot to do with why it works.
Meanwhile, J. Lo knows her brand. One can expect many wonderful curve-hugging sheath dresses accessorized by hoop earrings, tawny cleavage and impressive blowouts and two impromptu dance routines. (One is a kitchen party with her girl squad from Queens set to Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It and it’s a delight.) She is good at pratfalls and even better at quiet vulnerability. The best shot in Second Act is a stolen moment of Maya quietly smiling to herself on the New York subway, en route to her unknown future. She’s on the 6.