Halfway through Second Act, Jennifer Lopez’s working-class-gal-turned-high-end-beauty-industry-consultant has a revelation: Consumers are overwhelmed by the enormity of choices out there. What they really want—even if they don’t realize it—is a single beauty product that can take care of all their skincare needs. Why buy three separate face creams when you can get one that does it all? That also seems to be the philosophy behind Second Act itself, a comedy that attempts to cram at least three different movies into one glossy package. To its credit, it remains fairly watchable even as it veers around wildly in tone. Yet Second Act also proves that all-in-one products have their downsides. Prioritizing quantity over quality doesn’t often add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Charismatic as ever in her first return to big screen comedy since 2012, Lopez stars as Maya, a big-box store employee who has revolutionized output and morale at her store, but is turned down for a promotion because of her lack of a college degree. That makes for a rather depressing 40th birthday celebration and inspires her computer wiz godson to apply some desperate measures to these desperate times. He gives Maya an online makeover, filling her résumé with Ivy League credentials, Mandarin fluency, and coxswain experience while dressing up her personal pages with hikes up Kilimanjaro and photo ops with the Obamas. Maya’s newly swankified profile winds up landing her an interview for a high-paying consultant position at a Procter & Gamble-esque company. As the film helpfully points out, however, it’s Maya’s tangible in-store experience with the company’s products that actually earns her the gig.
Co-written by Lopez’s longtime producing partner/first time screenwriter Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Second Act plays like a spiritual sequel to Lopez’s 2003 romantic comedy Maid In Manhattan, another film about a working class woman posing as a member of the upper crust. There, however, the fake identity hijinks were in the name of love, here they’re in the name of career. Maya gets an obligatory romantic arc involving her longtime boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, in full This Is Us mode) and her uncertainty over whether she wants to start a family with him. The most interesting thing about that subplot is the conspicuous ADR that implies it was heavily reworked in post-production. Mostly, Second Act follows in the vein of films like Morning Glory and The Devil Wears Prada, which ape the aesthetics of a romantic comedy but are first and foremost about work. At its best, the film calls back to classic female empowerment workplace comedies like 9 To 5 and Working Girl. The relatively cohesive first act effectively builds up the pressure of the small, subtle indignities Maya faces from male higher-ups before delivering some satisfying wish fulfillment in her “fuck the man” departure for greener pastures.
Once Maya fraudulently earns her new gig, however, Second Act can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to do with its premise, so it basically devolves into two parallel films that just happen to feature the same characters. One is a slapstick comedy about Maya trying to maintain her cover while participating in a 10-week intercompany competition to redesign their organic beauty line. (That’s where her three-in-one beauty product idea comes in; shockingly, it has ties to the bombing of Hiroshima, of all things.) The other is a melodrama about Maya grappling with painful events from her troubled youth while slowly bonding with workplace rival-turned-friend Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens, stretching ever so slightly beyond her usual bubbly onscreen persona). The film’s discordant tones could be a product of its duel screenwriters (The Bucket List’s Justin Zackham co-wrote the script with Goldsmith-Thomas). Or perhaps it’s the hand of director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Anger Management), who can’t seem to go more than a scene or two without throwing in a pratfall or broad comedic gag.
Regardless, those ever-shifting tones are a lot to swallow, particularly once the movie starts tossing in more twists beyond Maya’s faked résumé. That Second Act doesn’t feel nearly as messy as it sounds on paper largely comes down to Lopez, an actor with an inherent magnetism that calls to mind the best old Hollywood stars. She always feels like a steady hand at the wheel, even when Second Act starts swerving off course. Lopez gets a decent scene partner in Hudgens and an even better one in Leah Remini, who steals the movie as Maya’s brassy, no-nonsense best friend. Second Act’s pat message about the importance of being true to yourself doesn’t land with much impact. But the film finds a more winning formula in its low-key exploration of female friendship and the value of an outsider’s perspective.