In many ways, Hollywood proper – meaning here The Movies – has never fully figured out what to do with Jennifer Lopez.
There is a sharp divide between the polished imperiousness of her persona as a pop singer and the more casual, approachable presentation she puts across in interviews and late-night appearances, and her film roles have often struggled with how to bridge that gap.
Movies such as the popular rom-coms “Maid in Manhattan” or “The Wedding Planner” placed her within stories of aspirational transformation that allowed her to transition from one realm to the other and her new, harmlessly charming film “Second Act” largely falls into that same template, if not as successfully.
The film follows many of the same beats as Mike Nichols’ 1988 “Working Girl,” in which a working-class woman from an outer borough of NYC bluffs her way into the offices of the rich and powerful in Manhattan, which we are given to understand is where she truly belongs.
In “Second Act,” Lopez plays Maya Vargas, who is passed over for a promotion at the big box store where she has been assistant manager for years and she feels her life is at a dead end. After the son of her best friend (Leah Remini) creates a false résumé and online presence for her without her knowledge — transforming her into a credentialed corporate consultant — she suddenly finds herself hired at a major cosmetics company and in competition with the boss’ daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). As unexpected connections from Maya’s past arise, her new life becomes intertwined with the old one she was trying to leave behind.
With a few moments of Christmas tree trimming as a backdrop, the movie positions itself smartly as a lighter piece of prestige season counter-programming. Yet the movie’s biggest drawback is its tonal inconstancy. Directed by comedy veteran Peter Segal from a screenplay credited to Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, the story careens from Maya’s struggles in business to heartfelt emotional scenes between Lopez and Hudgens to wacky bits of comedy with supporting players Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg or Remini and their girlfriends from Queens.
A romantic plot with Milo Ventimiglia gets the shortest shrift of all, although there is a playful charge to the way his character is treated with the offhanded disregard that a female girlfriend character might get in a male-fronted movie, there to look good, provide emotional support and remove his shirt.
The movie is all over the place and there is no attempt to weave it into a coherent whole — which is regrettable as scene for scene it often works. Remini provides a lively foil and Hudgens brings more spark to her part than necessary, in particular when her scenes with Lopez take a turn to the serious. The costumes by “Sex and the City” alums Patricia Field and Molly Rogers give the proceedings just the right touch of styled pageantry.
Jennifer Lopez may be perfectly content with a Jennifer Lopez vehicle like “Second Act” as part of her larger portfolio of projects – her official bio for the movie describes her as “one of the most successful and well-known brands in entertainment.” Whether Lopez will ever return to the fuller performances of earlier films such as “Selena” or “Out of Sight” remains to be seen. This “Second Act” leaves this viewer wishing that Lopez’s screen career could lead to something more than functional brand service.
Rated: PG-13 for some crude sexual references and language
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
In wide release