The early beats of Peter Segal’s “Second Act” won’t just feel familiar to fans of the working-girl-makes-good genre – best exemplified by, of course, “Working Girl” – but to fans of star Jennifer Lopez’s own filmography. In 2002, the multi-hyphenate starred in “Maid in Manhattan,” in which her titular maid is mistaken for a socialite and just goes with it to improve her life (and up her chances of snagging her handsome love interest). Similar forces are at play in the initially amiable “Second Act,” in which Lopez again stars as a woman who changes her life through the awesome power of basically just lying a lot and hoping no one is ever the wiser.
But whereas “Maid in Manhattan” took its Cinderella premise to predictable ends, “Second Act” isn’t content to let Lopez’s striving Maya (also confusingly known as Maria on occasion, one of many minor subplots that goes unexplained) zoom through the rarefied ranks of the business world, proving to everyone that street smarts are just as good as book smarts. Sure, that’s what the film looks like for its 40 or so minutes, and that’s certainly the way the film has been marketed to audiences, but “Second Act” has other ideas (and most of them are bad).
Fifteen years into a stint at the local supermarket, Maya has transformed the barebones store into a money-making community hub, and when a managerial gig comes up, she’s understandably ready for the promotion. Her company, however, has other ideas – mostly just a staid rule that all managers must have a college degree – and soon installs a dweeby business school wonk in the job that should be Maya’s.
Devastated by the turn of events, Maya uses a birthday wish to stump for a world where, yes, street smarts are just as valued as book smarts. This is no “Big” situation, though, and Maya issues her wish in the company of her best friend Joan (Lopez’s real-life BFF Leah Remini) and her internet savvy son Dilly (Dalton Harrod), who takes it upon himself to gussy up Maya’s resume and send it out to various competing companies.
Perhaps “gussy” is too kind a word, because Dilly flat-out lies, creating a world in which Maya is a Wharton grad, a Peace Corps alumna, and a personal friend of the Obamas. She’s also now known as Maria, with Dilly setting up the whole ruse under Maya’s apparent legal name (one of many weird details that feels unwieldy every moment it’s mentioned, right up until its real necessity is explained away). Soon enough, she gets a bite from a fancy cosmetics and personal care corporation, led by a smiling Treat Williams and his competitive daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), and her entire life has been transformed into a shiny corporate nightmare.
Lopez is a charming enough on-screen presence, and she sells a story that gets more ill-conceived by the minute, because while watching the brassy and clever Maya navigate through a clearly untenable situation could be entertaining enough, Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas’ deranged screenplay has other things on its mind. As fun as Lopez and Remini seem to be having while translating their best friendship to the big screen – there’s a dance sequence set to Salt-N-Pepa and a wonderfully giddy makeover montage – every conversation they have is also tinged with vague regrets about Maya’s past.
STXfilms will release “Second Act” on Friday, December 21.