It is some time since Jennifer Lopez headlined a crowd pleasing Hollywood comedy. But you glance at the poster for Second Act and there’s nothing on it that suggests 2019. Indeed, it looks like a film released ten years ago. You might find yourself asking, ‘have I seen this already?’
On the face of it, you have. Back in 1988, Melanie Griffith was sandwiched between Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford in the comedy, Working Girl, about a receptionist, Tess McGill, who steals her boss’ life after the villainous Katharine Parker (Weaver) took Tess’ idea. At its heart is the struggle of a working class girl: can someone without a college education succeed in business? You could ask Diane Hendricks, the co-founder and chairman of ABC Supply, a wholesale supplier of roofing, siding and windows in America with net worth of $6.2 billion.
In Second Act, Lopez plays Value Shop assistant manager Maya Vargas. She has turned an ailing store around by allowing customers to choose cuts of meat online and providing a space with free coffee where shoppers can talk. Maya knows customer taste. When a promotion comes along (no, not a two-for-one), she is disappointed to be overlooked in favour of a college-educated white guy whose buzz words attract flies. Maya quits in disgust. Then a husband of a friend creates a social media profile for her complete with a degree from Harvard Business School and some Peace Corps volunteering experience and suddenly she has a job interview at a cosmetics company where she is hired as a consultant. Her criticism of the current line of products draws ire from some of the staff, notably the boss’ daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). The women are placed in opposing teams to come up with the next exciting revenue earner.
The writers Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas give us the set pieces that we expect, notably when Maya’s lack of coxing experience is exposed. Then there is a plot twist that is something out of a telenovella, Lopez having one eye on the Latin audience.
Does it work? Well, in spite of the twist which does at least overcome the problem of some antagonistic female-led comedies – one woman having to supplant another to be successful – much of the film feels tired. There is the guy in the firm who tries to unpick Maya’s past and a dance sequence choreographed by Mandy Moore (La La Land) that is a stand in for a fist fight. Then there a bunch of doves that are released only to collide with traffic, a gag that would not be out of place in director Peter Segal’s 1994 directorial debut, The Naked Gun 33 1/3 – The Final Insult. Personally, I prefer the police light tracking shots during a space dog-fight.
Lopez is an empathetic presence but the comedy heavy lifting is provided by the supporting cast, including Charlyne Yi as an office worker with a fear of heights and a kinky side, Annaleigh Ashton as an unconfident researcher who trips a woman over to better talk cosmetics and, best of all, Leah Remini as the straight-talking best friend, Joan. Remini has an inspired moment when during a conversation in the kitchen with Maya and to show how relaxed and ‘blown-out’ she is undoes her trouser button. Okay, it is not on a par with Marisa Tomei illustrating her body clock in My Cousin Vinny but it takes you by surprise.
The film is backed by STX, which has predominantly Chinese finance behind it, so there is the obligatory scene where, for a business meeting, Maya pretends to speak the language, having words recited to her through an ear piece by a veterinarian.
It’s not just the plot that feels retro. At one point, Maya’s trying-too-hard-to-impress make over causes Joan to remark, ‘oh my God, you look like Mrs Doubtfire’. The film has one eye on the audience who first enjoyed Lopez in Anaconda.
As far as a trip to the multiplex goes, Second Act feels second choice. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about social media makeovers. Yet, I didn’t hate it. I know that’s faint praise, but there is something enjoyable about Maya’s Value Shop colleagues pretending to be her friends from Harvard. You’ll smile at least once – honest. If I haven’t mentioned Milo Ventimiglia as Maya’s love interest, Trey, it is because he isn’t germane to your enjoyment, though he cheer-leads well.
Second Act is in cinemas from Friday 25 January 2019