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'Second Act' review: Jennifer Lopez still has magic touch, but second plot strays

The Bronx-born star's heroine feels like a real person, but a twist derails what could have been a satisfying comedy.

Leah Remini and Jennifer Lopez star in "Second

Leah Remini and Jennifer Lopez star in "Second Act." Photo Credit: STXfilms/Barry Wetcher

PLOT A smart woman without a college degree fabricates one to get ahead.

CAST Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa Hudgens, Milo Ventimiglia, Leah Remini

RATED PG-13 (language and innuendo)

LENGTH 1:43

BOTTOM LINE Lopez still has her magic touch, but this semiromantic comedy doesn't do her justice.

Jennifer Lopez plays Maya Vargas, a self-made career woman hampered by her lack of a college education in “Second Act.” Despite her natural business acumen, innovative ideas and people skills, she finds herself passed over for a promotion at Value Shop, the big-box store where she’s been working for 15 years. And so with unsolicited help from her hacker godson, Maya reinvents herself as a Harvard grad with a Wharton degree, a Peace Corps stint and all the trimmings.

Deception aside, Maya is a heroine for our moment: a working-class Latina on a playing field where advantage can be purchased. Thanks to Lopez, still a radiant Hollywood star with a Bronx-born authenticity, Maya feels like a real person — a neighbor, a co-worker, ourselves. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to join the educated class, the ones who, in her words, “name their kids after fruit and climb Kilimanjaro?”

If only “Second Act” had fulfilled its up-the-establishment potential, it might have been a close cousin to “Working Girl” or “9 to 5,” one of those satisfying comedies in which the powerful get their comeuppance, the peons take over and meritocracy wins the day. Instead, “Second Act” goes for a second plot, centered on the baby that Maya gave up for adoption decades ago. As a result, it wobbles unevenly between comedy and weeper.

Directed by Peter Segal (“Tommy Boy”) from a script by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Justin Zackham, “Second Act” has all the right puzzle pieces. Treat Williams is Anderson Clarke, who hires Maya as a consultant for his health-and-beauty company; Vanessa Hudgens is Zoe, his highly competitive (and adopted) daughter; and Freddie Stroma plays Ron, a British snob who can smell an arriviste a mile away. Two sweet-natured misfits (Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg) join Maya in a race against Zoe and Ron to find a profitable yet organic skin-care product.

All well and good, if the film had stayed the course. Instead, when Maya and Zoe discover they are mother and daughter, the story goes off balance. Zoe suddenly warms to Maya, who in turn must now nurture, vanquish and come clean to her daughter. Meanwhile, Maya’s boyfriend, Trey (an appealing Milo Ventimiglia), ought to be a connection to her authentic past; instead, he breaks up with her and walks out of the movie. Leah Remini gets more screen time, as Joan, Maya's steadfast friend.

Though occasionally amusing and mostly watchable, “Second Act” feels disappointing. Lopez — and Maya — deserves better.

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