By Preston Wilder
Maya (Jennifer Lopez) has a problem: she’s lied her way into a high-powered job, and it’s only a matter of time before she gets found out. Maya has a dazzling CV, laying out her Harvard education and impressive achievements – but in fact it’s all lies, she’s never even been to college (it’s not her fault! it was her geeky-millennial godson who came up with the idea). The CV also claims that Maya speaks Mandarin, so when an important client arrives from China the company naturally asks her to take him to dinner and translate for the rest of the team. Maya agrees – but of course she doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin. Her goose is cooked!
Fortunately, her friend Joan (Leah Remini) has a bright idea. Joan knows a Chinese veterinarian, so a system is rigged up (it’s unclear how) whereby Maya talks to the client in the restaurant, the vet overhears his questions over the phone in his clinic and tells her what to say in reply. Unfortunately, the vet performs this delicate task while also examining a large dog, and giving instructions to his assistant in Mandarin! Maya’s replies to the client’s business questions soon become riddled with references to canine body parts. The client is puzzled; it’s not looking good. Fortunately, Maya’s obnoxious colleague Ron is also at the dinner, and ends up annoying the client. “I find Ron arrogant,” he complains to Maya in Mandarin; “What’s his problem?” “His anal glands need milking!” she replies, repeating what the vet just said about the dog. The client thinks she’s being witty. He laughs delightedly. The day is saved.
It was roughly at this point that I realised (actually, it was more like having it confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt) that Second Act should not be taken seriously, offers no real logic or dramatic tension, and is truly just a wafer-thin trifle coasting entirely on star power. Love or hate her celebrity side, J.Lo has always been a warm, earthy screen presence, and gives another winning performance here. The script, on the other hand, feels like a half-baked idea someone had in the 90s and never really bothered to flesh out.
The premise may have worked in the days before LinkedIn and Google, but is obviously implausible now. The details of Maya’s deception, as already mentioned, are even more implausible. Small moments also feel off. People call when you’d expect them to email, and write actual handwritten letters which they snail-mail across the Atlantic. Even when it tries to tweak the expected, the tweaks are nonsensical. It’s a cliché in this kind of movie that the heroine’s redemption has to happen in public: her ruse is exposed, she admits her guilt, then explains herself in a heartfelt speech which makes everything all right. Second Act does the approach work, setting up a public occasion for Maya (it’s even being live-streamed!) and getting Ron closer and closer to exposing her deception – but then, at the last moment, she goes on stage and admits the deception herself, making him irrelevant! What a weird anti-climax.
The film flails about aimlessly, giving every appearance of a thrown-together vanity project; Lopez, however, doesn’t care, and her insouciance is infectious. Her Maya is down-to-earth but also sensual, working-class grit meets movie-star glamour. Her boyfriend is supportive and sexy, and she’s forever complimenting his ass (in what may be a sly reference to the tabloid ribbing J.Lo always faced about her own curvy derriere) – yet the film features almost no romance for a purported romantic comedy, nor does Maya actively look for a man when she’s single. Instead, as befits our post-Frozen moment, it’s all about female friendship, not just with rival-turned-ally Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) but also with Joan and the rest of their sassy crew. The scene where all four ladies bump and grind to ‘Push It’ in a suburban kitchen is both unnecessary and entirely necessary.
There’s a time and place for this kind of movie – and that time and place is probably late at night on your living-room sofa, as opposed to venturing out to pay good money at the multiplex. Still, its flimsiness is endearing. Undernourished sub-plots raise their heads briefly – there’s one about Joan’s young son having a potty mouth, and a slightly better one about the workplace idyll between Maya’s kooky sidekicks – then expire from emaciation. Maya’s experience in retail (supposedly her trump card, in lieu of a college degree) plays little part in the plot, then her inevitable ‘Eureka’ moment is inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima (!!!). At the very end, our heroine supplies a thoughtful voice-over on What We Have Learned: “Our mistakes don’t limit us. Only our fears do”. Given how strewn with mistakes – yet oddly likeable – Second Act is, she may have a point.
DIRECTED BY Peter Segal
STARRING Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa Hudgens, Leah Remini
UK 2018 103 mins