Second Act

Jennifer Lopez is renowned for her work as an actress, with a slew of leading roles across numerous romantic comedies and tense thrillers. Rare is it for us to get a film from her that doesn’t hit one of those marks. While Second Act might be qualified as the former, it is really rather more of a drama, in my opinion – the heart of the film isn’t truly Maya’s (Jennifer Lopez) relationship with Trey (Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes and This Is Us fame), but her burgeoning relationship with her co-worker, Zoe Clarke (Vanessa Hudgens, stepping away from her Netflix fare for a big screen return). The other major storyline surrounds Maya’s efforts to find herself in a world where you are prejudged on your past, regardless of context. Regardless of where you are today.

Maya, concerned with her pending promotion to manager at the store she works at, Value Shop, because she doesn’t have a college degree like the other managers at the company, has proven to be a powerful force in her business. She has made changes that have dramatically increased the company’s profit margins and outperformed their nearest competition “twice over.” Yet, the changes she implemented in order to achieve this, the strides she took to build up this store, and the expansions she has made to drive up profit are all ignored because she lacks a degree. Another person has been called in to manage the store, Arthur Coyle (Dan Bucatinsky). To call him condescending would minimize the impact he has on Maya, who all but immediately decides to quit this job in the wake of her godson, Dilly (Dalton Harrod), drafting an impressively fake resume and submitting it to a corporate position. When she is asked for an interview, the drama (and comedy) begin.

What a difference a social class makes. Despite her instant misgivings about the idea (at this point, she doesn’t even know the kicker), Maya attends the meeting, taking public transportation like she always does, and shows up in the lobby where a group of young women, cookie-cutter-looks in an effort to show that she doesn’t fit in, are scattered around the room. As viewers, this is designed to show us that there is an army of competitors for her to get through. Rather, it usually is. Maria Vargas (her legal name) is not here for that job, and her interview is on the 59th floor of the corporation that makes half of the items on three of the aisles in Value Shop. Her interview is not with middle management, it’s not even with one of the varying C-levels you hear about on the news, but with one of the owners himself: Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams). Having seen her resume and being impressed with her skills, he wanted to interview Maya “Maria” Vargas himself. This sets off a chain of events built off of one little white lie that Maya wasn’t even aware had been told. Her entire resume.

Movies that follow this plotline are a dime a dozen – generally, they are done with the perpetrator knowing about the lie from the beginning. Maya, for her part, only finds out during the interview that she was brought in because of her “accomplishments.” When the job is offered to her, Maya’s best friend Joan (Leah Remini) delivers a powerful line, “the lie got you in the door, but you got the job.” She answered their questions without knowing they were seeing her because of a falsified resume, allowing her the freedom to honestly critique their company in an effort to help them bolster their business. Maya knows what she’s talking about, and she knows what she is doing. These skills and qualities are what make her an accomplished businesswoman.

Like all films that revolve around a lie, though, it will eventually come home to roost. Over the course of the film, however, Maya gets a taste of what true “value” is. Her new job comes with a corporate apartment that’s fully furnished and stocked, not to mention a series of cards she can use at various businesses in order to keep up with the competition and inspect their own products. A far cry from the long bus rides she was accustomed to for the last fifteen years. In that same vein, however, her closest friends have pulled away as she delves into this new identity, all but completely living the lie that was created for her. Her relationships with Joan and Trey especially take a hit. But the lie regarding her career accomplishments is not the only one that drives Maya and Trey apart – another secret that only Joan is privy to is the true culprit here.

Second Act is a comedy at its heart, but the drama surrounding the lies that Maya has to tell in order to make it through her day-to-day life as a consultant for a major corporation contributes to the growing tension in the film. Even as she is pulled away from the relationships she relied on in the beginning to get where she is today, new relationships open up at her new job. Ariana Ng (Charlyne Yi) is her probationary assistant, and Chase (Alan Aisenberg), a chemist she works with to produce an organic skincare line, are the two main supporting characters that she begins to build a rapport with, alongside Zoe as the film goes on. Even Anderson Clarke becomes somebody that she can rely on while competing against Ron Ebsen (Freddie Stroma) and Felix Herman (Dave Foley). Never mind Hildy Ostrander (Annaleigh Ashford), who seems to think herself better than Ariana and those around her – initially aiding Maya, she turns on her boss partway through the film, proving that you cannot rely on everybody.

Maya shines as a woman who is truly trying to figure out where she fits in and how she can live in that world as she is, not who others think she should be. Whether those opinions come from people who would gladly take advantage of her skills and abilities without properly rewarding them or friends and family who think they know how she should live her life without having walked in her shoes. Still, how people see you is important, and Maya finds that speaking your truth can help another person see that true version. Especially when the other person is your partner in life, your best friend, or your co-worker.

I find it funny that Second Act is classified by many as a romantic comedy. It features almost none of the Elements of such a film. While there is romance, and comedy is certainly rampant, this is nothing like Maid in Manhattan or The Backup Plan, two romantic comedy films that Jennifer Lopez made a splash in well before this one. On the other hand, perhaps that is what makes this film feel so unique amongst Jennifer Lopez’s repertoire. It is a film with deep emotional themes that do not conventionally fit into a specific box or narrative, much like her character, Maya. While it might not be a damning criticism of how we categorize movies, it certainly adds to the idea that it can be increasingly difficult to tell interesting, original stories. After all, this film was put forth as a romantic comedy, and it is certainly not that, but it doesn’t truly fit the bill of a drama, either. All of these are good things, though. Sometimes, stories don’t fit into neat little boxes with easily identifiable categories. Sometimes, films just are.

Zoe, as the adopted daughter of the CEO of the company, is constantly working to prove to everybody around her that she did not get to her position through simple nepotism. Quite honestly, her first interaction with Maya is indicative of that – with Maya’s bluntness regarding the organic skincare line not really being organic hitting close to home for Zoe. This relationship, which begins on shaky ground, becomes the centerpiece of the entire story. Their burgeoning friendship is why the film is so engaging and, in my opinion, so successful. They develop a true, comprehensive understanding of one another, tying the theme of truth and self-awareness as central concepts.

The relationship is the center of this film – not Maya and Trey or Zoe and Rob, or even Maya and Joan or Zoe and Anderson. The film’s true heart is centered solely on Zoe and Maya, which is a storyline I can get behind any day of the week. By the end of the day, only you know who you are, and that theme deep down is incredibly powerful.

Here’s hoping it always will be.

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