STX Entertainment has a bit of a bad reputation. Apart from The Gift, almost none of their films have an overall positive reception from critics and audiences. Part of this might be growing pains, after all, the newbie distributor is only four years old and is still finding its footing in this changing industry landscape. Part of it is also that several of their movies have been critical flops *cough* *Happytime Murders* *cough* which definitely hasn’t been helped by STX’s poor positioning of their films on the release schedule and lackluster marketing efforts (see here for a rant on the matter). That said, when someone does something right, it is important to acknowledge that so that they will continue to do so. Unfortunately for STX, they don’t seem to be able to afford that respect. A while back, I decided to check STX’s Amy Schumer vehicle, I Feel Pretty, when it hit streaming and was more than pleasantly surprised. Having debuted to miserable reviews maybe my expectations were a bit low; however, much like my experience watching Venom, I was delighted to discover that I Feel Pretty was not only charming and good-spirited but also had a truly thoughtful and witty script brought to life by a vibrant performance from Amy Schumer-Golden Globe worthy, and I mean that in the best possible sense-and game cast all around (the film was actually one of my favorites of 2018). While the negativity can be attributed to Amy Schumer being persona non grata right now in Hollywood, I am more inclined to think that the negative reception for the film seems to have a little something to do with a bias against its distributor, a theory that is only given more credence once you see Second Act.
Directed by Peter Segal and written by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Justin Zackham, the film tells the story of Maya Vargas (played by Jennifer Lopez), a hard-working woman in her 40’s who, despite putting forth only quality work, is unable to move up the corporate ladder at the supermarket chain where she works due to her lack of a college degree. Her fortunate changes, however, when a unique set of circumstances result in her landing a high-brow consultant position at a major business firm thanks to a fake resume. Despite her lack of a degree, Maya’s practical skillset, wits, and common sense give her an edge in the corporate field, though she must maintain her lie to keep her job. Sound familiar? It should because many of the plot points here (trying to improve one’s circumstances in life and work, a lifestyle change brought on by a lie, and the street-smart woman who proves to be more capable than others think, and a tricky balancing act performed to maintain the lie) are shared with Lopez’s other popular New York-set film, Maid in Manhattan, a perennial favorite amongst Lopez’s fans (you know who you are). That’s not a detractor though, as instead of playing like a cheap knock-off of her earlier work, Second Act instead builds upon the Maid in Manhattan‘s narrative framework and Lopez’s persona from that film to update the story and had some new thematic layers.
Unlike Maid in Manhattan, which focuses somewhat clumsily on the divide between socioeconomic classes, Second Act puts that focus more so in the background, bringing to the foreground a focus on personal and professional potential. Maya is shown to be very smart, resourceful, and above all professional. She is more than capable of handling a managerial/administrative position, which makes her inability to climb the corporate ladder without a degree more frustrating. These aren’t just buzzwords that are tossed around in conversation or the script promising potential but never delivering on it. Maya doesn’t just luck into a high powered job, the script goes out of its way to show Maya in action, not just in the build-up to her fateful interview with cosmetics firm Franklin & Clarke, but also throughout her tenure in the position. Particularly in the interview scene, we see that Maya is not only knowledgeable but also able to put her knowledge to use to locate problems and find solutions. The script even subverts expectations at points, allowing the audience to believe that Maya is about to make a fool of herself before she instead puts her best foot forward, not necessarily sure if she is saying the right thing, but reading the situation, speaking her mind, and leaning on her own experience to bring something valuable to the table, all thanks to her professionalism and belief in her own ability
The screenplay, co-written by Lopez’s longtime producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, is really what makes Second Act a cut above typical “Cinderella story” kind of fare. While undeniably a bit fantastical in its proceedings, there is a grounded sense of reality embedded amongst the workplace comedy and drama. There is also a really sophisticated layer to the story concerning self-worth. Maya never comes across as someone who doubts her own ability as a professional, but she does struggle with her global view of herself, believing that certain mistakes she made in the past will prevent her from fully ever realizing her true potential. It is a subplot in the movie that rings very true to anyone who has ever felt stuck in a rut, be it professionally or personally. We see how Maya perception of herself as a human being, apart from a professional, affects her personal relationships. She does not sweat over potential failure in the corporate field nearly as much as she does in thinking that her past will affect people’s perceptions of her as a person and their judgments of the decisions she has made. But of course, as the film correctly points out, the people whose opinions of you matter won’t mind you for who you are; instead, the people who matter most in your life will value you the work you do and quality with which you treat others. So long as you put your best foot forward, whether professionally or personally, the only thing that can stand in your way is you.
Now, amongst all the good and the message that this screenplay has to offer, there are some things that weigh it down. Chiefly, the film’s weakest aspects are its contrivances. Unrealism and suspension of disbelief go hand in hand with any moviegoing experience, but there are some things in the film that do seriously stretch credulity. A fake resume getting someone such a high-powered job, and a lack of consequences for presenting one in the first place, is one thing (not really that much of a bother given that film puts Maya’s ability front and center; also, who hasn’t fudged some details of their resume before?), but the film does contain a pretty large plot twist (no spoilers) midway through that can’t really come off as organic no matter which way you spin it. There are also some obvious and awkwardly written moments of Chekov’s gun going off that could’ve used a little finessing, namely a solution to the problem of creating an organic yet sun-repellent moisturizing cream that Maya and her team are tasked with creating for a major third act presentation (you know the drill). These contrivances may make you roll your eyes and I feel that they are actually the reason that Second Act‘s overall reviews are so lackluster, but I don’t think that they are nearly as much of a detriment to the film as other reviewers are making them out to be. Sure, they are noticeable, but the actors handle them well and they feed nicely enough into the movie’s themes (particularly that twist) that they are easy to overlook.
Acting wise, Jennifer Lopez really is a movie star. She is just as charismatic as ever and is able to sell not only Maya’s more emotional moments regarding her self-doubt, but also really shines as a businesswoman who may be nervous about her prospects but marches forward with the strength of her conviction and confidence in her skillset. This role was very much tailored to her but she truly shines and creates a very real and nuanced character that we can all root for. The rest of the cast also does a lot to fill out the world around her, playing their roles with just the right amount of personality while the comedy is light and fun and avoids falling into caricature, for the most part. Vanessa Hudgens’ Zoe, one of Maya’s co-workers, comes off a bit stiff in the first half of the film but it fits well for her character, a role for which she is pretty well cast overall. She does get more material to work with once that plot twist comes in to play, and once she is allowed to let her character’s colder exterior to melt a bit, she comes off as very warm and reminds us just why we fell in love with her in High School Musical all those years ago, establishing a really sweet rapport with Lopez’s Maya. Milo Ventimilgia, who plays Maya’s beau, also is well cast in his admittedly small role, and despite basically monologuing the movie’s message to the audience he delivers his line well and makes a good impression. Treat Williams is a treat (haha) as Maya’s boss, who’s characterization is surprisingly nice for this kind of character in this kind of film, while Freddie Stroma and Annaleigh Ashford ham it up as stereotypical assholes, unfortunately coming off some of the weaker and inconsequential parts of the movie (Ashford is well cast though, and Stroma does get a fun dance scene). Despite having an awkward chemistry about them, Charlene Yi and Alan Aisenberg get a lot of comedic mileage out of their individual quirks and joint antics, but in all seriousness, the real scene stealer of the film is Leah Remini as Maya’s best friend and former co-worker, Joan. Lopez and Remini are best friends in real life, so their chemistry is a given, but it takes some pretty strong acting chops to complete pull focus from Jennifer-freakin-Lopez in certain scenes. Remini’s performance is the kind that makes you wonder whether she is not acting and just being herself or really that fantastic of an actress, but she brings the real belly laughs with her sharp observations and jabs (both loving and rude) at her friends, co-workers, and kids (there is a particularly funny running gag regarding her kids and cursing that will have you in stitches whenever it comes up). She plays the best friend well but her strength as a comedian is undeniable and will genuinely having you thinking as you leave the theater, “If Melissa McCarthy could get an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids…??”. Peter Segal’s directing is unambitious, but he rightly steps back to given the story and actors room to breathe. On a technical level, STX once again shows that they know how to make a good looking movie, with sets that are glamorous, sleek, and well-lit (I Feel Pretty has a similar level of set-dressing polish), but the real stand out is Patricia Field, whose costume design never fails to catch the eye. Leave it to the costume designer behind The Devil Wears Prada make sure that JLo looks phenomenal.
Verdict: 3 Stars (out of 4)
Second Act is a feel-good movie with a great message about getting out of your own way and taking pride in your own abilities. Its messages may be obvious, but they’re no less important because of that. While some may call this a Maid in Manhattan rip-off, Second Act rises above those preconceptions and actually makes for a pretty great companion piece thanks to an honest and solid script, a reliably charming star, and fun cast in tow. Some contrived plot points may annoy viewers who aren’t into this kind of movie, but if you are looking for a sweet time at the theater, these contrivances will be easily overlooked.