Jennifer Lopez and Vanessa Hudgens can't save this well-intentioned but formulaic comedy.
According to this year's star-studded chick flicks, real women want easy-to-use beauty products. They also want films where women state this obvious fact, apparently. First I Feel Pretty made that claim, and now Second Act does the same, because these things typically come in pairs. The similarities don't end there, with both movies championing the idea that it's what's inside that counts. Sadly, neither picture knows how to properly live up to that notion — and while Second Act has more heart than its near-insufferable predecessor, it also sports a vast gap between its good intentions and its muddled reality.
Jennifer Lopez plays everywoman Maya, a Queens native with 15 years experience at a Costco-like discount department store, but lacking in professional confidence. She lacks a college degree as well, which precludes her from the big promotion she's been working towards. Maya's support network helps commiserate — and celebrate her birthday — but it's the teenage son (Dalton Harrod) of her best friend and co-worker Joan (Leah Remini) that makes a difference. Thanks to his computer wizardry, Maya suddenly has a fake online life complete with the credentials, backstory and social media profile to get a high-flying Manhattan job. And when she's swiftly headhunted by a prestigious cosmetics company, she goes along with it.
Armed with street smarts and real-world experience, this fish-out-of-water is soon tasked with making an organic skincare line for her new employer — while pitted against cut-throat colleague Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), who also happens to be the boss' (Treat Williams) daughter. Cue a quest to prove that Maya has what it takes, although she only has the chance to do so because she lied to conform. No amount of comic competition, well-meaning sentiment or lightly insightful commentary about class can lessen that divide, as the movie tells viewers to be themselves, but only after they've pretended to be someone else to get their foot in the door. Given that the organic skincare subplot involves calling out substandard products that falsely claim to fit the label, surely director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) and writers Justin Zackham (One Chance) and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (also one of Second Act's producers) should've noticed that their film suffers from the very same flaw.
Perhaps the filmmakers were just distracted by (or trying to distract viewers with) Second Act's various moving parts. Splitting its time between Maya's professional and personal struggles, the movie explores why she gets frosty whenever her boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia) mentions having children — and while to say more is to spoil Second Act's, well, second act, motherhood remains a prominent theme, as does Maya's attempts to balance her new and old lives. Set at the end of the year for no apparent reason, this is also a Christmas film. Thanks to the hijinks of Maya's devoted employees (Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg), it's a broad workplace comedy as well. But, more than anything else, it's a case of throwing together every formulaic element possible and simply hoping that the combination works.
What does work is Lopez, firmly in Maid in Manhattan mode and showing why she's often a warm presence even in lukewarm (at best) films. Most of Second Act feels contrived, misguided, forced and superficial, but that doesn't apply to the movie's star, or to Hudgens when she's given a bit more to do. Still, neither actor can completely overcome the material. Second Act's jumbled core never fades, which only reinforces its central message in an unintended fashion. What's inside this flick is bland, routine, and happy offering up feel-good statements in a slight and easy way. And as the movie keeps telling viewers, it's what's inside that truly matters.
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