A film’s opening moments can tell you everything you need to know about what you’re settling in for, oftentimes in the best possible ways – think Billy Wilder superimposing the title of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ onto a Hollywood gutter, or the way Greta Gerwig warmly contrasts mother-daughter affection and antagonism in ‘Lady Bird’, or the stately classicism and haunting beauty of ‘The Godfather’s’ America monologue. However, sometimes a film’s opening moments can also immediately clue you into the fact that, well, the next two hours of your life aren’t going to be great.
And so it is with ‘Second Act’ – a film that begins with Jennifer Lopez running around Queens on her morning jog with a full face of make up and a perfect blow out, each of which remain terrifyingly perfect two seconds later... when she is mid-shower. Not only is Lopez’s Maya apparently the carrier of some sort of curse that makes her water- and sweat-resistant, she is also a 40-year-old woman with a steadily growing sense that she hasn’t been able to reach her full potential. After Maya is passed over for a promotion at the super store where she’s worked for years, thanks in part to her not having a college degree, her friend Joan (Leah Remini, ‘The King of Queens’) gifts her with a preposterously convincing fake résumé that not only touts her higher education bonafides, but also her fluent Mandarin and her friendship with the Obamas. Somehow, we’re lead to believe that this lands her an interview and a job with a swanky Manhattan-based pharmaceuticals company.
Gasp! Will she be able to pull off the con? Spoiler alert: yes, of course, duh.
I’m actually coming off much more derisive than I should over what is, in essence, a pretty inoffensive movie. Billed as following in the footsteps of ‘Working Girl’ and ‘Maid in Manhattan’, ‘Second Act’ flounders thanks to what we might call a failure of tone. Going in, you might expect a fun rags-to-riches romp about a woman finding out she can have it all and proving to the world how great she is – honestly, sign me the fudge up for that movie, I’m gay and basic. But from the get-go, the film continually wants to pivot into something more grounded, dourer and more focused on a character who constantly says no to every possible plot development, and basically has to be dragged kicking and screaming through the entire movie.
Already so unintentionally ridiculous, the film somehow refuses to see how much more fun and full of life it is when things get kicked up that extra ludicrous notch – a particularly unnecessary yet entertaining tango break a prime example of such. And that’s without even getting to the unexpected shift in premise that occurs before the film has even reached its midway point, setting it on an even more serious path that’s then even harder to balance with the absurdity happening elsewhere.
The film somehow refuses to see how much more fun and full of life it is when things get kicked up that extra ludicrous notch.
With a performer as naturally charismatic in any genre as JLo in the lead role, it’s frustrating to watch a film so fatally misjudge the type of film its premise demands it to be, and waste the talents of a leading lady who isn’t often seen on the big screen. Lopez is, of course, charming and able to sell anything the script throws at her, but she really only comes alive in scenes where she’s paired with Remini. The two women are able to actually form a believable old-friends chemistry, and Remini (a sitcom stalwart, and easily the film’s MVP) coaxes shading and a much needed sense of energy out of her scene partner in a shrewdly laidback manner.
Is it unfair to compare ‘Second Act’ to some of the greatest films of all time? Of course it is. But even when compared to its genre forebears, there’s not much of note going on here. Ably directed by Peter Segal (it’s not as visually ugly as many other modern comedies, at least!), with a fine supporting cast (Milo Ventimiglia aged into quite the daddy), and blessedly free of women trying to tear down other women (come to think of it, kind of free of any danger or stakes at all, really), JLo’s return to cinemas could’ve been the kind of light confection that some of us (definitely not I) would find ourselves amiably rewatching on Netflix ad nauseam.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.