Career Makeover: Lopez's charisma can't fully carry vanilla "Second Act"

Second Act (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

“Second Act” would like to be “Working Girl,” except it’s more pleasantly vanilla than biting, funny, or romantic. As a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, it does play to the strengths of the star’s charismatic presence and includes a solid supporting cast. Director Peter Segal (2013’s “Grudge Match”) and screenwriters Justin Zackham (2013’s “The Big Wedding”) and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas have a main plot contrivance that works more than it should — it’s one where a character puts on a ruse, which could be solved in minutes through a simple conversation but would end the movie rather quickly. Around the, yes, second act, “Second Act” becomes a different kind of film with a saccharine plot development even more contrived than its setup, undermining its imparted message about personal reinvention and risk-tasking with street smarts versus book smarts to redirect its focus on a soapy, emotionally manipulative subplot out of a Lifetime Movie. The film is watchable as fluff goes, but for this viewer, 2002’s “Maid in Manhattan” was much more charming. 

Street-smart 40-year-old Queens native Maya Vargas (Jennifer Lopez) has fifteen years of experience working as an assistant manager at big-box store Value Shop in Ozone Park, but she’s been passed over for a promotion because she only has her GED and not a college degree. On her birthday, Maya’s best friend/co-worker Joan (Leah Remini) and hunky baseball coach boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia), who wants to marry her and start a family, try to lift her spirits, but it’s not until her Stanford-bound godson, Joan’s son, gives Maya the best present: a résumé makeover with Ivy League credentials and an amped-up Facebook page with copy-and-pasted photos of her climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and posing with the Obamas. This catches the eye of Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams), the CEO of Manhattan’s high-end consumer products firm Franklin & Clarke, who calls her in for an interview. Maya seems to be an ideal candidate for the consultant position, even though she slights the false advertising of the company’s organic skin cream, which has been created by Clarke’s business-savvy daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). How long can Maya keep up her secret that she’s not a college grad, or does her experience and smarts speak for themselves?

For a while, “Second Act” works as a wise and empowering, if generic, workplace slice-of-life before giving over to the plot mechanics of a Cinderella rags-to-riches story involving deception. Besides Maya’s rise to the top of Franklin & Clarke in creating a genuinely organic skin cream, she also has to contend with the breakup of boyfriend Trey, who wants a baby more than she does due to a giant secret she has kept from him. As for the aforementioned second-act plot “twist” that tries adding weight to an otherwise featherlight story, it deals with Maya and her daughter whom she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager living on the streets. Not only predictably telegraphed and convenient in its scripting, it changes the rest of the film into a much less interesting one, while keeping the emotions as shallow as a kiddie pool and as treacly as a Hallmark greeting card.

Multi-hyphenate Jennifer Lopez (2015's "The Boy Next Door") has always been a magnetic performer on screen as much as she is on stage, and she’s even able to put her superstar baggage aside here to play a relatable, sympathetic character like Maya, who can bust a move in an impromptu number to Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It” with her gal pals in the kitchen. One could watch Lopez banter back and forth on a loop with Leah Remini (TV's "Kevin Can Wait"), who enlivens the obligatory role of Sassy Best Friend as Joan and brings their real-life chemistry as longtime friends to the screen. Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s “This Is Us”) is a charmer, despite being saddled with the boringly written role of Trey, a baseball coach whose main characteristic is that his ass always looks good in jeans. Vanessa Hudgens (2013’s “Spring Breakers”) gets to play Zoe as both cunning and vulnerable, but the writing is too superficial to fully earn that arc. Annaleigh Ashford and Charlyne Yi also lend quirky support as tightly wound development executive Hildy and acrophobic assistant Ariana.

The comedic moments are on the hammy side, giving its star a slapstick moment where Maya quits her job, proudly struts on her way out, and then falls over the chain of a cashier lane. A moment where she must prove her would-be Mandarin fluency with the help of Joan’s Asian veterinarian in her ear is okay for a few easy laughs, but more amusing is a scene in which Anderson Clarke wants Maya to show her skill as a crew coxswain at his country club. Once it’s time for Maya’s big lie to come out, it’s naturally televised, so all of her loved ones can watch her be honest with herself and everyone she’s duped. “Second Act” is glossy, innocuous holiday fare that shouldn’t let down Jennifer Lopez’s most faithful fans, but it’s too bland to be the crowd-pleaser and the feature-length advertisement for organic skin cream that it seeks to be.