For several weeks now, film critics and reporters have been harboring a secret, hinting on social media about a December movie with a major twist—and that it’s maybe the last movie you would think.
“Is it Second Act LOL?” one friend joked to me, referring to the sweet and seemingly charming comedy starring Jennifer Lopez that’s been heavily promoted this holiday season and is due to hit theaters this weekend.
Well, friend—and readers—yes it is.
The Jennifer Lopez comedy about a grocery store worker from Queens who lies on her résumé and lands a cushy corporate job has, for our money and with all apologies to the Liam Neeson plot in Widows, the biggest movie twist of 2018. That is to say, it’s not so much a twist as what the movie is actually about… which is not at all what the movie is being sold as.
Can you call it a twist when the plot development in question happens near the top of the movie and is actually the movie’s plot, trailer be damned? More, is it then a spoiler to reveal it?
(That’s more an existential question for you than it is rhetorical. We’re about to reveal that spoiler. You’ve been warned, in case you don’t want to know the big twist in the, uh, J. Lo movie.)
When the trailer came out for Second Act—heck, when just the announcement was made that Jennifer Lopez would be starring in it—fans of The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan thanked the Hollywood gods for their blessings: J. Lo, one of the rom-com’s greatest big-screen queens, would be taking part in the genre’s modern renaissance.
We are sad to report that you have all been duped! Second Act is not a romantic comedy, something you should have sensed if you watched the trailer with any sort of sharp eye, but which I learned nobody has yet realized.
Lopez plays Maya, who, with the support of her best friend Joan (Remini) and infallible boyfriend (Ventimiglia’s Trey), goes after a promotion at the Queens Value Shop she has single-handedly turned around, but is passed over for a dickhead with a business degree. “I wish we lived in a world where street smarts equaled book smarts,” she tells Joan. “Screw ‘em, the educated people in their fancy houses who name their kids after fruit and climb Kilimanjaro.”
Joan’s whizkid son, Maya’s godson, overhears, creates a fake résumé and online persona for Maya—Kilimanjaro selfie included—and applies for a major consulting job at a cosmetics company on her behalf. Despite being blindsided by his well-intentioned efforts when she arrives at the interview, those street smarts and pavement-pounded experience land her the job—and all of its luxurious perks.
You see, not a rom-com! In fact, impossibly perfect Milo Ventimiglia breaks up with her over the lying. Don’t fret. That’s not even the twist.
You see, he breaks up with her over the lying, but also over the fact that she won’t have kids with him. It turns out that when she was a teenager she had a daughter that she gave up for adoption. It’s a secret that she won’t tell him but which we learn about because—surprise!—that daughter is now all grown up, played by Vanessa Hudgens, and her coworker at this big new job.
Second Act is not about Jennifer Lopez falling in love, or even, really, about Jennifer Lopez navigating the tricky waters of deceit while working at a job she lied to get. It’s about her reconnecting with Zoe, her daughter, and keeping up all those lies so as to not disappoint the child she finally has back after all these years.
Again, this reveal happens extremely early in the movie. And not just the audience discovering that Zoe is Maya’s daughter, but the two characters learning it, too. The rest of the film is spent with them building a relationship, as Maya grapples with her guilt that their newfound bond is built on falsehoods used to nab this job. That’s an interesting story. One that we’d imagine people would buy tickets to see. Yet no one has any idea that it is what the movie is.
We’re not sure why this is kept a total surprise. (Hudgens is barely featured in the trailer, despite having the second biggest role in the movie.) Audiences tend to not enjoy being bait-and-switched, and this twist isn’t of such a jaw-dropping nature and blow-your-hair-back shock to add anything to the experience by keeping it a secret. The movie is perfectly enjoyable and an actually quite lovely exploration of these complicated mother-daughter relationships, something that should be promoted and marketed.
After having seen it, we’d say that Second Act is exactly the movie you want it to be, which we now realize is an absurd thing to say considering that most people who are not reading this have no idea what the movie they’re about to see actually is. But it’s true. It is sweet, a paint-by-numbers execution of the PG-13 Jennifer Lopez comedy that is soothingly colored exactly within the lines. I will enjoy watching it on Sunday afternoons on TBS for years to come.
The film is almost entirely a raucous soundtrack of familiar songs and zinging punchlines, interrupted by a handful of requisite tearful monologues. Leah Remini is absolutely hilarious. Milo Ventimiglia is shirtless two minutes in. At one point J. Lo does a business negotiation while on the dance floor.
There is a surface-level exploration of cultural themes that goes just deep enough to have you pause and go, “Hmm, makes you think,” without interrupting the Salt-N-Pepa dance party. The idea that people treat you differently when they think you’re smart based on your credentials and nothing else. The way people are marginalized because of that.
More, it digs into the ideas of motherhood and shame in ways that movies rarely do, at least not ones this glossy and targeted at this audience. Which, again, underlines how silly it is that this aspect of the movie is being kept a total secret.