I’m not going to come right out and tell you not to go see Second Act, the new comedy from Happy Madison alumnus Peter Segal. After all, a Jennifer Lopez vehicle that features two separate dance sequences cannot, by the laws of nature, be all bad. Ultimately, though, despite the marks in its favor, the movie is too half baked and inconsistent to provide anything more than handful of forgettable chuckles.
Lopez stars as Maya, an assistant manager at a discount big box store who gets passed over for a promotion due to her lack of a college degree. When her friend’s whiz kid son (Dalton Harrod) makes her a wildly fraudulent résumé with a confirmable Internet history to back it up, she suddenly lands herself a high-powered executive gig at a massive skin care company. The two questions Second Act asks are how far will she go before her guilty conscience leads her to come clean about her true past and does all of this take place in an alternate universe where Sierra Nevada beers still have twist off caps?
That fake résumé is such a glaring sword of Damocles that the anxiety of its falling overrides nearly every scene. The premise recalls Stephen Herek’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead but, in that case, the character’s clueless hubris was the point; the movie anticipates her being caught at every turn. But Maya is not supposed to be shallow, entitled or lazy. She’s a good person and so her dishonesty works against every other aspect of the story. Second Act’s concept is so much higher than its stakes that the whole thing becomes precarious. And I haven’t even mentioned the further complications that arise, involving Treat Williams as her new boss and Vanessa Hudgens as his daughter.
Screenplay problems aside, however, the cast is terrific, most of all Lopez. Though always a reliable actor, she hasn’t been this natural and assured in a role in a long while. She’s also a generous scene partner. Second Act is a star vehicle but she knows when to let other actors carry the comedic load, particularly Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg as two subordinates at her new job, who help save the day while finding their own kinky romance. But the best bits are the ones that pair Lopez with Leah Remini as Maya’s foul-mouthed neighborhood best friend. If nothing else, Second Act proves that the role of the exasperated wife to a doofus that Remini played on King of Queens and in Old School allowed us only a glimpse of her considerable talent. Here she’s unleashed and remarkable.
Okay, so I’ve touched on phrases like “kinky” and “foul-mouthed” so you may have figured out now that Second Act is often delightfully ribald for a seemingly middle-of-the-road comedy. The most successful of the off color jokes tend to come from Remini (and her character’s copycat tyke), although Dave Foley (as a new workplace rival) gets off a play on the word “coxswain” that might have been filthy enough to garner an R rating if it weren’t cloaked in innuendo. In the minus column, though, are a couple of transphobic jokes that could have been struck from the screenplay without being missed in the least.
Finally, there are the film’s shaky and under-considered class politics. Early on, screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas establish Maya’s—and the film’s—lower middle class bona fides by commenting on the benefits and limits of a GED as well as real world problems like when and if Maya will want to have children with her longtime boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). From there, the premise grows ripe for a satire of how much it helps in America to come from a financially secure place if you want to end up in one. Sadly, Second Act’s themes soon fizzle out into hoary platitudes about self-actualization. This is stuff you’ve seen and heard before. If you really want to see and hear it again, I’m sure you can get it from a Redbox in a couple of months.