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Given that shes one of the hardest-working people in show business, its fitting that Jennifer Lopez should make a movie about work. Shes done it before, of course—navigating a rising career in Selena, resigned to cleaning hotel rooms in Maid in Manhattan—but never quite so directly as in Second Act (opening December 21). Lopezs first non-animated film in three years, after some time spent on TV and in Las Vegas, Second Act has a meta whiff of revival, centering a prolific renaissance woman in the medium that first made her famous. Its nice to have her back.

Warning: mild spoilers to come.

In Second Act, Lopez plays Maya, a street-smart Queens native whos passed over for an upper-management promotion at a supermarket chain because she doesnt have a college degree. After some moping, Maya finds herself on a brisk career adventure when a deceptive résumé and a mysterious e-mail land her an interview at a healthy and beauty conglomerate whose offices are located somewhere in the very building where I am writing this review. Timid but egged on by her loved ones, particularly her best friend, Joan (Lopezs real-life bestie Leah Remini), Maya decides to seize the opportunity and prove that her real-world expertise is better qualification than any kind of elite book-learning could be.

Which is a valuable subject for a film, especially at a time when cultural pressures toward higher education have pushed thousands of young people to go into debt by pursuing degrees they may never put to practical use, while those without degrees fall further and further into the indifferent maw of the minimum-wage service sector. This issue involves class and race and certainly gender—so Second Act is not exactly the frothy, glossy December comedy one perhaps assumes will result from a Lopez-Remini pairing.

Written by Justin Zackham (The Bucket List) and producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (in her screenwriting debut), Second Act is pretty blunt in its messaging. Or, at least, in its themes. There is no romance complicating the film (Milo Ventimiglia, looking good, is Mayas patient on-again, off-again), while the storys competition narrative—between Maya and her young, degree-laden rival, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens)—gives familiar, easily maneuvered structure to the film. Second Act is a straightforward issue dramedy with a fizz. Lopez sails through with her natural charm, while New York gleams in director Peter Segals loving attention.

Or, hm. O.K. So, thats how the first half-ish of the movie goes. But then Second Act does something entirely unexpected: theres a major twist that turns the movie from something relatively buoyant, cheery even, into pure melodrama. Even so, Second Act tries to maintain the airy energy that animates its first half, which makes the reveal stand in even stranger contrast. How easily everyone seems to accept this seismic thing—they react to it with some measure of emotion, yes, but its all processed pretty quickly and then folded into the texture of their lives.

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I obviously dont want to spoil the twist—and, really, revealing that theres a twist at all is itself kind of a spoiler, sorry—but its hard to talk about this movie without somehow bringing it up. Because it so suddenly, so totally alters Second Acts DNA that one leaves the theater having seen a completely different movie than expected. Which is rare these days, given all that goes into marketing a studio-adjacent release like this.

So, I wont discuss what happens in Second Act here, but I will say that this jarring change of direction knocks the movie off balance. What ensues is weirder but somehow less interesting than what came before—the movies stakes are raised to heights it hasnt quite earned, or doesnt seem built to sustain. Its maybe unfair to impose ones expectations on a movie in this way, but I really wanted Second Act to be something it is shockingly resistant to being.

I appreciate that the movie explores the terrain its interested in, steering the movie into a thematic inquiry thats certainly no less pertinent than the films initial mulling of class and opportunity. Its just that the outlandishness of the secret conceit doesnt really meld well with all the lived-in, blue-collar trappings of the films setup. Second Act is a kitchen-sink drama that goes for surprise over real seriousness. Its a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, and thus still worth a look. But Second Acts second act proves pretty hard to follow.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is the chief critic for Vanity Fair, reviewing film, television, and theatre. He lives in New York City.

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