Movie Review ~ Second Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A big box store worker reinvents her life and her life-story and shows Madison Avenue what street smarts can do.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s a feeling you get while watching Second Act that you’ve been magically transported back to the early 2000s when movie studios were still making mid-range comedies that weren’t based on a comic book or an established franchise.  This was a time when a 30 million-dollar movie could get greenlit on star power alone and make its money back in the opening weekend before going on to enjoy a healthy life with repeat viewings on cable or well-worn DVDs.  Alas, this is 2018 and even if Second Act isn’t the same kind of slam-dunk destined for repeat viewings guilty pleasure we want it to be, it’s certainly a nice blast of nostalgia with several modern twists that keep it interesting.

When she misses out on a big promotion at her Wal-Mart-ish job she more than deserves that coincides with a milestone birthday, Maya (Jennifer Lopex, The Boy Next Door, radiant as ever) is feeling down in the dumps.  Though comforted by her best friend Joan (Leah Remini) and boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, Kiss of the Damned) she can’t get over the fact that just because she doesn’t have a college degree it means she can’t advance in her career even if she has earned it.  Thanks to Joan’s whiz-kid son, with a little fancy internet tweaking and resume fudging Maya lands and interview and eventual consulting job with a beauty company in New York City.

I’m going to stop right there because that’s what the previews for Second Act have told you and it’s better if I let you see for yourself how the story develops.  Let it be known that Second Act isn’t exactly the movie it has marketed itself to be (sorry ladies, an early shirtless Ventimiglia scene is the closest you’re going to get to romantic territory) and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  You can see why Lopez, who scored so many early hits in the rom-com genre got the script for this and found it to be worthy of her time and producing effort.  It’s formulaic as all get-out but it works in ways that surprised me more than I thought it would.

Playing to its target audience by sending Maya on a Cinderella-esque story from rags to riches (with stops at all the major designer stores along the way) and putting her up in a swanky NYC apartment, the only thing screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas don’t give Maya is much of a personality.  Lopez sells the material well but Maya is often the passive viewer in her own life story, acquiescing to the wishes of others and not standing up for herself.  Case in point, though she has told him over and over again she wants to advance in her career Ventimiglia’s character keeps giving her a guilt trip about delaying starting a family — why doesn’t Maya ever say “No, dude, I don’t want to start a family…I’m 40 years old and want to be an executive!”  In all honesty, the entire Ventimiglia storyline could be excised without losing anything major…except for a small sampling of its female demographic.

Director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) doesn’t do anything special from a technical perspective but he gets the right people in the room and lets the charm of the collective hive carry the movie through some of the cheesier fare.  Aside from Lopez (who seems to change into one glorious costume/hairstyle every 30 seconds), Remini scores a win as Maya’s smart-acre sidekick (you can absolutely tell the two are besties in real life) and I got a kick out of Annaleigh Ashford (Frozen), Charlyne Yi (The Disaster Artist), and Alan Aisenberg as Maya’s coworkers who bring their own comedic oddities to their screen time.  Only Vanessa Hudgens (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as Maya’s corporate rival struggles to stay convincing, though Lopez tends to elevate her anytime they share a scene.

With so many movies out this holiday season, I’m guessing this isn’t going to make that big of a dent in the box office but will likely find a better audience when it’s available to watch at home.  It likely will play better on the smaller screen, too, and might have even made a bigger splash as, say, a Netflix original film.  Still, for those like me who mourn the death of these types of smaller genre films Second Act is a nice reminder that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Smooth Talk

SmoothTalk

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie Wyatt’s sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs.

Stars: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Elizabeth Berridge

Director: Joyce Chopra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 90’s I went through a period of really hating Laura Dern.  There was something about her gait, her delivery of a line, her bird-like features that really rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t take her seriously or sit through one of her films without feeling rumpled.  Then the strength of her work in recent years (including a remarkable performance in HBO’s just canceled Enlightened and memorable supporting roles in movies like The Master and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) made me change my mind, encouraging me to seek out some of her earlier work.  Now, I’m enraptured.

That’s how I happened upon Smooth Talk, a true hidden gem of a picture that kept me on the edge of my seat thanks to a star performance by Dern as a California teenager flirting with danger over the course of one hot summer.  Based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why.  With direction from Chopra and a Spartan script courtesy of Tom Cole what begins as a familiar look into teen angst in the mid 80’s turns into…well…I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The film is surprising in its turns but never feels like it’s exploiting our lead character or the audience as it unwinds its careful yarn that may remind you a bit of Little Red Riding Hood.

Dern is astonishing here, navigating some tricky material that couldn’t have been easy to play.  She’s supported well by Williams as a mysterious stranger that sets his sights on Dern and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as her mother that holds her to a different standard than her other daughter.  It’s an effective film for a lot of reasons, not the least is its look into a loss of innocence from multiple points of view.

This plays on television quite often so keep your eye out for this one – it’s rare to find a film so assured and unexpected.