I will never forget 2018 as the year of the return of the romantic comedy — as an idea, and as a thing to be projected onto, if not as an actual market force. It was also the year romantic comedies found themselves via the beauty industrial complex. In the midst of a fits-and-starts encouraging year for the genre, both Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty and now Jennifer Lopez’s Second Act set their protagonists’ eureka moments at glossy corporate presentations. In Pretty, Schumer’s character’s “believe in your own beauty” pep talk builds up not to a massive riot and rebellion against the cosmetic company she works for, but rather, a new body-positive ad campaign. Second Act’s climax is a kind of inverse of that, with the protagonist’s imposter syndrome ultimately winning the arm-wrestling match over her career. What’s telling about both films is that they are built to look and feel like the romantic comedies of yore, but their romance plotlines are nominal compared to the bright and burning-hot love affairs these heroines have with the corporate ladder — like the modern rom-com, more of an idea than anything else.
The contemporary nostalgia for romantic comedies is understandable (even if I do not personally share it), as is the nostalgia for Jennifer Lopez, movie star. Unfortunately, Second Act is a strange, scattered attempt to cash in on that longing, and it doesn’t seem to know what its own deal is aside from a rushed vision board collage of Things Women Are Probably Worried About — “Career!” “Fashion!” “Motherhood!” “My Boyfriend’s College Baseball Team!” It sends so many mixed messages over the course of its 104 minutes that it probably succeeds in its true goal: to give off the general patina of something that could ostensibly be all things to all women.
In the film, Lopez stars as Maya Vargas, a long-suffering associate at a Queens big-box store who feels like she’ll never be able to make anything of herself because she never went to college. Street smarts she has aplenty — but they’re no use in getting her that big promotion to associate manager. So, without her knowledge, her best friend Joan’s (Leah Remini) son builds a fake social media presence for her, and applies in her name for a fancy consultant job at an ersatz Procter & Gamble, helping develop products for their organic skin care line. She lands the job, impressing the boss (Treat Williams) with her knowledge of their customer base, and soon gets the (literal) keys to her new, high-shine lifestyle as a downtown condo-dwelling serum guru. Unfortunately, chasing that sky-high lifestyle means leaving her longtime boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia), who doesn’t see why she can’t just be happy with their life in Queens.
Marginally heartbroken but still determined to Make It, she is soon pitted against the boss’s daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) in a race to develop the best new product under budget. She is teamed up with a trio of misfits, played by Annaleigh Ashford, Charlyne Yi, and Alan Aisenberg, whose half-baked characters flit around Maya’s orbit in order to create the illusion of chaos and comedy. The amount of time Second Act devotes to the ins and outs of developing and marketing an organic mass-market skin care line — a lot of time, surprisingly — is not the strangest of its features by far. That honor would go to a mid-film twist too left-field to spoil, which turns the wannabe-zippy workplace comedy into a different animal altogether. Suffice to say, perhaps Maya’s teen pregnancy, which kept her from going to college, was all for the best!(?)
In some ways, Second Act embodies all the ways in which the mainstream “women’s comedy” is having an identity crisis right now (even aside from the absurdities of a studio system that no longer finds whatever $100 million dollars they can make worth the time anymore). The movie simply doesn’t know what it aspires to — it knows it believes in true love and career satisfaction, but it also needs to tip its hat to something that could be considered feminism if you squinted hard enough. The ending of the film has a — likely unintentional — melancholy wistfulness to it, as Maya embarks on her next act, which somehow seems even less fulfilling than the empty shininess of her brief dalliance in skin care. “She can have it all,” the movie gasps, but I’m not sure Maya, or anyone else, even knows what It All is anymore.