Word of Mouth: Jennifer Lopez makes an acting comeback in ‘The Back-Up Plan’

It’s the season for comebacks. The L.A. Kings finally have returned to the NHL playoffs, Ford is expected to post a quarterly profit and Jennifer Lopez is back in the multiplex.

For the first time in three years, the 40-year-old Lopez is anchoring a movie, and though the stakes aren’t especially high — the singer-actress is starring in a $35-million romantic comedy, not some extravagant superhero franchise — there are any number of intriguing back stories behind “The Back-Up Plan,” which looks to open to modest business, with a first weekend of about $11 million to $13 million predicted.

In addition to marking Lopez’s return to acting (she had twins with husband Marc Anthony in 2008), “The Back-Up Plan,” which hits theaters on Friday, is the second release for CBS Films, which bombed with its $12.5-million grossing debut film, the Harrison Ford- Brendan Fraser medical drama “Extraordinary Measures.” It’s also the first feature directing job for Alan Poul, best known for his producing (and occasional directing) credits on “Six Feet Under,” and screenwriter Kate Angelo, who’s an alumna of TV’s “Will & Grace.”

“The Back-Up Plan” was originally titled “Plan B,” an apt name for a movie that was originally offered to Julia Roberts. When Roberts and CBS couldn’t agree on a director, the call went out to Lopez, last seen in the 2007 salsa misfire “El Cantante” (which she produced and starred alongside Anthony) and 2005’s family drama fizzle “An Unfinished Life.” As a singer, Lopez has recorded No. 1 albums (including 2001’s “J. Lo”), but recent record sales have been cooler, and in February she split with her longtime record label.

Although Lopez is infamously known for starring opposite then-fiancée Ben Affleck in the catastrophic flop “Gigli” in 2003 (it barely passed $7 million domestically in its domestic theatrical run), she nevertheless carries a surprisingly impressive track record in a number of romantic comedies.

She played opposite Jane Fonda in 2005’s “Monster-in-Law,” which grossed $82.9 million in domestic release. Three years earlier, “Maid in Manhattan” grossed $93.9 million (as some sort of testament to its appeal, there’s now a Chinese-language remake without Lopez in development) and 2001’s “The Wedding Planner” sold $60.4 million in tickets.

Audience tracking surveys for “The Back-Up Plan” suggest she could be a polarizing figure in a polarizing genre (men older than 30 show little interest in seeing the movie), and the film could offer a real test on the difference between celebrity and stardom. What’s surprising in the audience polling is that young girls (13 to 19) in at least one survey are more interested in seeing the film than women older than 30, a testament to Lopez’s pop culture influence as a singer and fashion icon.

As Lopez’s career blossomed, so did her reputation for being difficult (she declined to do interviews with The Times). Perhaps becoming a mother has tempered her demeanor, because the reports from “The Back-Up Plan” were favorable. “She was excited to be filming again and she loved being on the set,” says Poul. “She was remarkably good-natured — always prepared and always setting the mood for a congenial set.”

Adds costar Alex O’Laughlin: “People were constantly asking … ‘Is she a diva?’ And the answer is no. I just think people assume that anyone who is that famous and who has had a career that is anything like hers must be. And that’s not actually the case. It takes a lot of, I would presume, time, effort and management to stay sane in a life like that. But she’s really grand. She’s a mom, she’s a wife, she’s a career girl, she’s all that stuff.”

In the film, Lopez plays Zoe, a single New Yorker who’s grown tired of not finding Mr. Right and decides to turn to artificial insemination to start a family. (Outside of comic-book adaptations and “Wizard of Oz” revivals, sperm donation is now Hollywood’s hottest trend: freelance fertilization is central to the plots of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s “The Kids Are All Right” and Jennifer Aniston’s “The Switch.”) As soon as Zoe leaves her fertility clinic with a bun in the oven, she meets artisanal goat cheese maker Stan (O’Laughlin), who might just be the man Zoe’s been looking for all these years.

Zoe’s afraid of commitment, and Stan may be drawn more to sustainable farming than parenthood. With enough candles flickering in the background to fill a Pottery Barn store, the couple try to figure out how to make it work. It’s a romantic comedy, so you don’t even need to guess if they’ll ultimately get along.

But if the movie is going to collect favorable word of mouth (it’s unlikely to attract strong reviews), it will be because audiences find Lopez’s character relatable, not distant. “To me, the great advantage [of casting Lopez] is that this movie plays to all of her strengths,” says Poul. “She’s a classical movie star — almost of another era — but also unafraid of physical comedy, of some of the movie’s vulgarity.”

“She may not be exactly relatable to every woman,” producer Todd Black says. “She’s a beautiful movie star. But she’s also a working mother, and I think that’s relatable. And I think her sweet spot is romantic comedies. Her audience likes to see her in these kind of movies.”

Originally set to open earlier in the year (CBS switched the release date for “The Back-Up Plan” with “Extraordinary Measures”), Lopez’s movie arrives at a particularly good time for women-driven films. “Valentine’s Day,” “Dear John,” “The Bounty Hunter” and “Date Night” have, to various degrees, done good business.

“Three years seems not that long at all,” Poul says. When the film starts, he says, the audience will drop whatever it thinks about her public persona. “The second the movie begins,” he says, “she’s the character.”

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.