My general litmus test for a movie like this is: Would I sit down and watch this again if my mom wanted to see it? In this case, yeah, sure. Just in terms of filmmaking, it hits all the requisite notes and never gets too gooey or obnoxious (though it flirts heavily with both). The script works and figures out ways to pile on what might otherwise amount to an entire television season’s worth of narrative arcs without ever getting too complicated or overbearing. The dramatic twists, the tugging of heartstrings, and the self-improvement and empowerment fantasy elements all fall into place naturally and go strategically against the mainstream romantic comedy grain of being empty platitudes meant to hold the audience in a cinematic stupor. But most of all, Second Act does two things that set it apart from most comedies: It remembers to have a heart and to actually be funny.
I’m not even sure I’d classify Second Act as a romantic comedy. The film has a lot going on, but the romantic subplot is easily the least important or pressing thing about it. If anything, the closest comparison might be to Penny Marshall’s Big, in which a completely unqualified person lands a cushy job based on their passion for whatever the movie’s Big Corp. is selling (in Big, it’s toys; in Second Act, skin care products). Jennifer Lopez, as Maya, must then struggle with whether to come clean or keep up the ruse. The difference here is that, again, there’s so much plot happening around her that this genuinely makes for a difficult decision and not just another version of the same movie you’ve seen a thousand times (or at least, it’s a better version). Second Act‘s biggest twist even surprised me by how well the film had built toward it while at the same time not tipping its hand too much. I’ve seen too many movies for twists like this to normally work on me, but I admit: You got me, Second Act.
Movies like this usually get a bad rap from critics and a lot of love from audiences, and both sides have a point. There’s this template called “romantic comedy,” and we think, well, “Anybody can do that.” Which is true, up to a point. But not everybody can do it well. Most comedies, like DC movies, are total trash. When done right, they put all the rest in stark contrast. Second Act, more often than not, gets it right. It’s sentimental and overstuffed, but they all are. Being set (partially) during Christmas, the film even has that annual rewatch potential. So if my mom wants to put this on next holiday season, I probably won’t mind. Hell, I might even suggest it. That’s probably the most positive thing I’ve ever said about a Jennifer Lopez comedy, but here we are. It’s been a weird year.