Manhattan! The wondrous toy. The isle of joy. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Nobody can deny it: New York City and environs have been very good for American popular song lyricists as well as every new generation’s cinematic fairy tales. The borough’s still got the stuff.
And even a weak mashup such as “Second Act,” in which Jennifer Lopez recombines bits of “Working Girl” with pieces of her own 2002 “Maid in Manhattan,” might placate a few moviegoers.
Here’s the quickie review: good cast, nearly hopeless script. “Second Act” hinges on a significant reveal around the midpoint, and it’s a lulu in the worst way — preposterously coincidental, outrageously contrived. En route to that rusty hinge, the screenplay by Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas follows Maya (Lopez), longtime assistant manager of an outer-borough big-box store. In the opening sequence she’s passed over for a promotion by a patronizing middle-aged white male.
This happens on her birthday. Things are goodish with her steady, good-hearted boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia), but he wants kids, and she’s not ready. Maya has yet to share her big secret with him, involving a child she gave up for adoption when she was 17.
To this concealment, “Second Act” adds a huge deception. Without her knowledge, Maya’s teenage godson (Dalton Harrod) fakes a fancy Ivy League résumé and some amazing social media activity in her name. Instantly she gets called in for an interview with a multinational cosmetics firm run by gruff but kindly Treat Williams. (A generation ago, this might be the start of a romantic triangle, but you know: #MeToo, #TimesUp and #NoChance.)
Maya’s innate blue-collar street smarts land her the high-buck consulting gig, but she has to sustain the Ivy League ruse indefinitely, while heading up the launch of an organic product line. The campaign’s part of a head-to-head competition with the boss’ savvy daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), approximately 17 years Maya’s junior. Hmmm!
From there, “Second Act” runs into what are commonly known in theatrical circles as “second-act problems.” Besides the wing-ding of a story-dependent reveal, Maya’s paranoia about being ratted out for lying becomes a load for the character and a drag on the movie. Director Peter Segal handles the slapstick interludes with a routine touch, including a disastrous product demo, and an office party that turns into sexytime for the mutually attracted nerds played by Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg. The actors remain at the mercy of their material, but Yi, in particular, has a way of finding laughs where there are none on paper.
The best, loosest scenes tend to be the ones off-plot, where Maya re-connects with her old gang led by bestie Joan (Leah Remini, delivering every punchline with full, optimistic faith in the jokes). Lopez remains a true movie star, but it’s hard to work up a full head of rooting-interest steam since “Second Act” is fundamentally the story of someone who takes forever to come clean.
A lot of romcoms work that way. But there must be a better way to map out one of these things.