Imagine a Jenny-from-the-block-goes-to-the-big-city comedy of corporate ambition, naïveté, and success — a movie in the tradition of “Working Girl” and “Baby Boom,” with Jennifer Lopez as Maya, the manager of a Queens superstore, who gets plucked from the outer boroughs like Cinderella to be an executive consultant for a high-end women’s cosmetics company. The trick that makes this possible is a fake resumé (cooked up by her hacker godson), which palms off Maya as a golden product of Harvard, Wharton, the Peace Corps, and Estée Lauder; this means she has to pretend to be all those things. She also, of course, has an office rival, a dark-flashing-eyed climber named Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). Which of these two can devise the most profitable organic skin-care product?
Now imagine a sudsy Jenny-from-the-block weeper in which Lopez’s Maya lives with the perfect dude, a baseball coach named Trey (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s eager to marry her and start a family. All seems right in their world, except that Maya, who has just turned 40, doesn’t want kids. And the reason she doesn’t want kids is that she got pregnant when she was 16 and gave up her daughter for adoption. But now fate has smiled (and please read no further if you don’t want a key development of “Second Act” spoiled). Maya is reunited with her daughter, and gets to know her. You could almost call the movie a mother-daughter romance, complete with honeymoon, love montage, fight, break-up, and reunion.
That these brazen formula plots co-exist, interlaced, in a single movie doesn’t sound at all promising. But even though “Second Act” shouldn’t work, it does (sort of). It’s got flow, a certain knowing ticky-tackiness about its own contrivances. You know you’re watching a connect-the-dots comedy, but the dots sparkle. And Lopez gives her first star performance in a while. Age has enriched her talent; she brings curlicues of experience to every scene. She whisks you past the hokum of a corporate office comedy by pouncing on every twist as if she fully believed in it.
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The deluxe product that Maya ultimately comes up with is an all-in-one skin ointment made from gingko leaves, and “Second Act” is like that ointment. It’s got a little of everything: executive comedy, maternal anxiety, love story, female buddy movie. Maya has a handful of pals from the hood, and Leah Remini, as her closest, does throwaway line deliveries that rival Kathryn Hahn’s in “Bad Moms.” Her choicest moment: reacting to her porn-star name — you know, your first pet combined with the street you grew up on — as if it seriously aroused her.
“Second Act” has standard funny scenes like one in which Maya has to speak Mandarin at a business dinner by getting lines fed to her through an earpiece (including one about grasping a dog’s scrotum — the person feeding her the lines is an otherwise occupied veterinarian). The director, Peter Segal (who made “Tommy Boy” and several Adam Sandler comedies), has a way of getting fresh notes out of his actors. John James Cronin, as Remini’s owlish son, delivers four-letter words as if born to say them, and Treat Williams, as the head of the F&C corporation, seems, at 67, to have shaken all the darkness out of his system; as a benign business daddy, he gives a performance that pings. Charlyne Yi, as an executive assistant with a fear of heights (and a secret kink), performs with her own cracked timing, and Vanessa Hudgens plays Zoe with a grown-up saucy yearning.
But it’s Lopez who gives “Second Act” a note of righteous class comedy. Maya pretends to be swimming in prestige degrees, and what Lopez tells you, between the lines, is that those degrees now add up to a different sort of glass ceiling, one designed to keep the club of the privileged locked. “Second Act” is about smashing it open, any way you can.