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Non-Review Review: Second Act

In structural terms, Second Act is effectively a romantic comedy. It just hits upon the novelty of stripping out a secondary lead.

Second Act is the story of Maya Vargas, as played by Jennifer Lopez. Maya works as a manager at a local supermarket, where she has found a way to turn the business into a local institution due to her quick-thinking and her understanding of what customers actually want. Maya is grounded, smart and reasonably successful in her chosen field. However, she is also fundamentally unsatisfied. She aspires to something greater than the life that she currently lives, and fate conspires to elevate her through a case of mistaken (or at least obscured) identity.

Streets ahead.

Second Act is a familiar aspiration fantasy, anchored in the idea that personal reinvention is possible through a combination of imagination and insight, that people are capable of transcending their circumstances or their bad luck through a combination of intelligence and commitment. Although Maya only has a single love interest over the course of the film, the boyfriend with which she starts the adventure and who is promptly sidelined, the beats and rhythms of Second Act are taken wholesale from the romantic comedy template.

Perhaps the love affair at the heart of Second Act is Maya learning to properly love herself.

Milo’s to go.

This assertion is true in a number of different ways. In the most earnest and life-affirming, it could be argued that Second Act is a movie that takes the formula and structure of a romantic comedy and attempts to apply it to a story where the female lead does not need the validation or affirmation of a male co-star in order to seem validated. Maya is dating baseball coach Trey when the story begins, and their relationship is largely defined by a mutual appreciation and trust. It is also made clear that Trey’s love is not what Maya needs to feel complete.

Indeed, the central tension between Trey and Maya concerns his desire to start a family and her reluctance to do so. Here, Second Act runs into some of its earliest and most obvious problems. Second Act is curiously unwilling to commit to Maya’s unease with the idea of starting a family with Trey. In the first half of the film, it is presented as something approaching a pathology rather than as a perfectly rational decision for a professional woman. Second Act roots Maya’s reluctance to start a family with Trey in one specific and traumatic event from her own past.

A Vanessa to Hudgins kiss.

More than that, the film struggles a little bit when trying to reconcile Trey and Maya towards the end of the film, to help the pair navigate what would most likely be an irreconcilable difference given what the film has established about these two characters; that Trey wants kids, and that Maya does not. When Trey asks Maya whether she is ready to start a family, she fudges the answer by insisting that Trey is her family. It is an awkward bit of wordplay that allows Second Act something approaching a happy ending while completely sidestepping an actual meaningful discussion.

Second Act does this a lot. To be fair, this very much goes with the territory. Much like blockbuster superhero films like Captain America: Civil War or Aquaman seem afraid to unpack the implications of their central ideas, romantic comedies tend not to pick too heavily at the narrative and emotional logic that underpins their narratives. Second Act acknowledges a surprisingly mature tension between Trey and Maya, even if it fudges the reconciliation between the pair in order to deliver on the standard romantic comedy beats.

A friendly wine.

Ignoring Trey, as Second Act consciously and pointedly does for most of its runtime, the film is allowed to indulge in the fantasies of the romantic comedy without specifically anchoring them in heterosexual attraction. Second Act is a story about transformation and revelation, but without suggesting that Maya needs the love of a good man to be complete. Instead, the film is positioned as something close to a female-centric take on con-artist films like The Distinguished Gentlemen or Suits or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Using a fabricated curriculum vitae, Maya is able to ascend to a prominent role in a major multinational corporation, demonstrating that she has the intelligence and insight that deserves more recognition than her assistant manager job at a local supermarket. This is one of the standard romantic comedy set-ups, the “fake it until you make it” approach hinging on a mistaken identity or assumption. Lopez has form in this particular narrative convention; Maid in Manhattan hinges on the male lead mistaking her hotel maid for a fellow guest.

Made in Manhattan.

Second Act runs through a checklist of familiar romantic comedy sequences and setpieces. Maya is welcomed into a world of ostentatious luxury, given access to a pent house and given access to company credit lines with top-tier brands. There is a shopping montage, as Maya indulges in a little retail therapy to help her get over her pseudo-break-up with Trey and to ease her mind as she throws herself into the corporate world.

What follows is a fairly standard comedy of errors, as Maya’s distorted history places the character in a variety of fish-out-of-water situations that largely involve showcasing how fresh and exciting her “outside the box” thinking can be. In particular, Second Act stresses Maya’s practical experience of the beauty industry from her time working in a shop as more meaningful than any academic market research or economic theory employed by her more conventionally-educated business rivals.

Cosmetic changes.

This does lead to some tonal awkwardness within Second Act. The opening act stresses Maya’s resentment of an ambiguous and hazily defined “them”, later revealed to be those people who had the opportunity to access higher education and break into these industries. There is a faint scent of anti-intellectualism to all of this. Maya does not seem upset that she didn’t have the chance to go to college or that she was deprived of the opportunity; instead, she seems frustrated that college is treated as an entrance criteria to skilled labour.

Second Act even throws in a somewhat truncated subplot in which Maya’s entrance into the corporate world serves to estrange her from her more grounded and mundane friends. As Maya works hard in the kind of job that she always wanted, she finds herself with less time to spend with her best friends. More than that, there is some suggestion that Maya is embarrassed by the awkward and broad supporting comedy stylings of her former friends when they try to invite themselves into her new life.

Maya the best woman win.

At the same time, Second Act also seems to understand the uncomfortable subtext of Maya’s position as a character who wants a high-skilled job without accruing the sort of qualifications that an application for such a position would need. Later on in the film, there is a very brief aside wherein Maya chides her godson for his plans to drop out of Stanford, somewhat ignoring the fact that his decision to drop out makes a reasonable amount of sense if these qualifications are as meaningless as Maya’s success makes them seem.

This is perhaps the central tension within Second Act. It is a film that tinkers just a little bit with the familiar structure and format of the romantic comedy, but which lacks the will to make any serious departure from that template. Maya’s friends do embarrass her in front of her work colleagues, and do risk jeopardising a job in which she finally has fulfillment. They do this without any warning and without her consent. However, because they are stock romantic comedy supporting characters, Maya’s anger at them is presented as unreasonable.

What has the future got in store?

This disjointedness might also inform the second (and more cynical) way of interrogating Second Act as a romantic comedy that eschews the second lead. The most cynical read of Second Act might be that it is a romantic comedy that finally gives Jennifer Lopez a love interest worthy of her attention: herself. Second Act is at its most awkward in its early scenes, trying to sell Jennifer Lopez as a working class woman with real problems, feeling as indulgent and flattering an appeal to the mega-star’s “integrity” as Jenny from the Block.

Second Act gets a lot better when it stops asking Lopez to play Maya as “authentic” and instead allows her to play into the film’s more screwball tendencies. Lopez is a movie star more than an actor, and so can handle a screwball setpiece or a cartoonishly exaggerated emotional pay-off without breaking a sweat. Second Act struggles when it asks the audience to accept Lopez playing a character who has worked in a local shopping centre for years, but works better when it allows her to bounce from one ridiculous premise to another.

A one-stop shop.

More than that, Second Act seems too tied up in this equation of Lopez with Maya. The film hits a lot of the expected romantic comedy beats, including the inevitable third act nadir; the point at which the previously ascendant protagonist is laid low, allowing the audience a sharp intake of breadth before they pull themselves out of the hole that they have dug. This often involves dealing with the emotional fallout from some lie or misunderstanding, and may even feature a mad dash to the airport.

Appropriately enough, Second Act trips over itself in the third act. The big issue is that the film seems unwilling to actually acknowledge any emotional harm that Maya might have caused to other people. Instead, the movie’s big emotional catharsis is framed entirely in terms of Maya rather than in terms of the people affected by her lies. Maya’s decision to come clean is framed as a heroic and tragic act for Maya, but the sequence affords no other characters any emotional agency.

An interview to a kill.

This is most obvious in the way that Second Act avoids implicating Maya in the initial fraud. Her records are altered by her overzealous computer-literate godson, without her consent. She takes an interview without knowing any of this. While she plays along, Second Act stresses that Maya is simply reacting to the characters around her rather than actively lying to them or manipulating them. As a result, her act of confession feels largely unnecessary. It was her godson who created the lie, she was just a passenger.

More than that, Maya repeatedly has the option to come clean to the people who have placed their trust in her in a private capacity – over dinner with the executive officer and his daughter, in a late night private meeting at the office, even over email. Even when the matter seems to come to a head, Maya still has a whole weekend in which she can decide the terms by which she will acknowledge her transgression and seek forgiveness.

Instead, because the confession is about Maya rather than any of the people affected by the ruse, Maya stages that confession in the most public manner possible. Maya announces her sins to the world, in a way that has a very high probability of amplifying the hurt and humiliation that the people around her would feel and which might have a lasting impact on the careers of people who trusted her deeply. None of this is given any thought or consideration, because Second Act is a focused on Maya’s emotional needs to the exclusion of any others.

Second Act does some interesting stuff with the romantic comedy formula, but its biggest innovation is also its fatal flaw. It is a love story with just one central character who plays both roles in the romance narrative.

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