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Toward a Unified Theory of Jennifer Lopez

J.Lo returns to the rom-com world this week with ‘Second Act,’ in which she again asks us to regard her as regular girl with regular problems. She’ll convince us if she has to make a billion dollars trying.

Ringer illustration

There was the time she and Matthew McConaughey accidentally ripped the penis off a garden statue and then accidentally Krazy Glued it to his hand while trying to stick it back on. There was the time she fell in love with Ralph Fiennes despite his only real personality trait being that he owned a large dog. There was the time she got in a vicious slap fight with Jane Fonda while wearing a wedding dress. There was the time she got so distracted watching her goat-farmer boyfriend mow the lawn shirtless that she drove her car into a tree. There was the time she reclined amorously on a bed and purred, “It’s turkey time—gobble gobble” to her real-life boyfriend Ben Affleck in one of the worst movies of our young century. No, the romantic-comedy universe has never known quite what to do with Jennifer Lopez, and for all her queenly ubiquity, she has never quite known what to do within it.

On Friday, Lopez will star in Second Act, her first live-action comedy since the sophisticated 2012 ensemble piece What to Expect When You’re Expecting, unless you count her marquee role in the ludicrous 2015 erotic thriller The Boy Next Door, in which her sexy neighbor gives her a first edition of The Iliad, which is, indeed, hilarious. In Second Act, she plays a frustrated blue-collar striver who scams her way up the corporate ladder via a fake résumé and a fabricated Facebook page. And while she appears to be smooching Milo Ventimiglia from the beginning in this one, the film still has a whimsical rom-com shape, and the same class-conscious aspirational zeal she once brought to Maid in Manhattan, a 16-year-old movie so ill-advised in retrospect that it feels old enough to collect social security. We’re back to the idea of seeing J.Lo as adorable but tough, and downtrodden, and frustrated, and, above all, relatable. Which is, as always, a tough sell that’s only gotten tougher. But it’s adorable to watch her make the sale.

In 2018, Lopez is a full-fledged mogul (“I want what I deserve,” she told The New York Times, touring her Bel-Air mansion that doubles as a conference center) in a whirlwind power-couple romance with one Alex Rodriguez. In August, she received the coveted and arbitrary Video Vanguard Award at the 2018 MTV VMAs, celebrating a pop star career that on the one hand has given us nearly two decades of righteous, delectable jams, and on the other hand can be summed up with the words “I don’t know her.” She is a movie star with no world-conquering blockbusters (Maid in Manhattan came closest) to her credit, but only one world-destroying disaster (that would be, gobble gobble, Gigli) to her detriment. Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s maximum-cool 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation in which she’s crammed into a trunk with a prison-breaking George Clooney, is a masterpiece, full stop. All her subsequent rom-coms were nowhere near as romantic but (mostly) tolerable all the same.

There are the J.Lo movies where she kicks various asses, and there are J.Lo movies where she navigates various zany love affairs whilst pulling various super-cute faces. This one, from 2010’s The Back-Up Plan, is my favorite.

CBS Films

That is a world-class Yeesh Face, which is not to be discounted. But can you still buy J.Lo as a lovable underdog screwup? Did you ever? This is a human who in 2002 was compelled to release “Jenny From the Block,” a peppy tune about how lavish success and mega-fame totally haven’t changed her, this humility marred by the song’s ridiculous video, in which she cavorts with Affleck on a yacht. (It is the spiritual successor to her 2001 Ja Rule duet “I’m Real (Murder Remix)” also unconvincing.) Second Act is asking us, once again, to regard Lopez as a regular degular shmegular girl with regular degular shmegular problems. She’ll convince us if she has to make a billion dollars trying.

One clue that 2001’s The Wedding Planner doesn’t quite know what to do with J.Lo is that her character is supposed to be Italian. Costarring Matthew McConaughey and the statue penis Krazy Glued to his hand, it was the logical next step for Lopez, by then both a pop star and a movie star. (In certain households, 1997’s Anaconda is also a masterpiece.) Part of the deal with a true rom-com is the weapons-grade suspension of disbelief that allows you to accept a media-saturating celebrity like Lopez as a loveless klutz who spends her off-hours watching Antiques Roadshow and playing Scrabble with senior citizens. And it’s not that she and McConaughey have no chemistry whatsoever—here, watch the angry-tango scene in Italian. In the the early 2000s, she came closer than most to seizing Julia Roberts’s mantle. But she still didn’t really come close, and this movie, with its awkward dueling-busted-weddings climax, was a shaky start that she arguably didn’t improve upon.

As for 2002’s Maid in Manhattan, here is a spirited and quite comprehensive debate between my beloved Ringer colleagues Amanda Dobbins and Shea Serrano about whether this movie would be made today; the answer, in short, is hopefully not. Lopez plays, indeed, a maid in a swank Manhattan hotel; Ralph Fiennes plays a quasi-playboy Senate candidate who mistakes her for a guest and falls in love with her and also has a dog and otherwise doesn’t have much going on in terms of charisma. This film at least seems aware that Jenny From the Block can bring a fresh perspective to a fairy tale such as this and allows her to sass Fiennes for his condescending attitude toward Bronx housing projects and so forth. But as my colleagues note, the only funny characters are also the racist characters, and J.Lo is saddled with an irritating young son whose sincere love for Richard Nixon and Simon and Garfunkel lands him in the Cloying Rom-Com Kid Hall of Fame. At least there is a dope shopping montage.

In 2003 came Gigli, in which Lopez quotes Sun Tzu, and Affleck smashes a wayward punk’s laptop before snarling, “Here’s suck-my-dick-dot-com,” and our two real-life lovebirds engage in a baffling six-minute penis vs. vagina debate while she does yoga.

To repeat, do not watch Gigli even as a joke, nor attempt to rehabilitate it as a misunderstood cult classic. The bigger problem, though, is that it contains most of Lopez’s most memorable dialogue, from “I do jobs of various types” to “gobble gobble” to “now as far as your famous penis goes, the penis is like some sort of bizarre sea slug, or like a really long toe.” She gives that last line her all in terms of charisma, digging a hole she’d never quite climb out of, but digging with visceral aplomb.

Indeed, the reason Gigli persists as joke-y shorthand for “box-office bomb” is that it’s so specific in its terribleness, so vivid in its repellant personality. Even a joyless turkey like 2005’s Monster-in-Law is There Will Be Blood by comparison, but it also evaporates on contact, not quite reprehensible enough to be worth remembering. We’re back to rendering Lopez as an anonymous and incoherent whirlwind of Helpless Cute, from her bizarre employment situation (she plays some sort of dog-walker/yoga-instructor hybrid) to the way she’s forced to weather dialogue like “Are you currently an illegal alien?” and (with regards to her groom) “He went out and found himself an exotic Latina.” They would hopefully not make this movie in 2018, either, and for that matter shouldn’t have made it at the time.

New Line Cinema

Lopez’s formal romantic-comedy run ended with 2010’s The Back-up Plan, in which she owns a disconcertingly large New York City pet store and decides to embark on single motherhood mere seconds before meeting the shirtless goat-farmer of her dreams. This involves goading an inbred dog with wheels for back legs into vomiting up her positive pregnancy test, faking multiple orgasms in a cheese barn, and fainting into a befouled kiddie pool after witnessing a home water birth led by Melissa McCarthy.

The issue (well, one of them) is that even 10 years on, slapstick was still not J.Lo’s comfort zone; it’s not so much beneath her as locked up in a penthouse adjacent to hers. The best recent rom-coms, from Crazy Rich Asians to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to The Big Sick—are expertly built for (if not also built by) their stars, playing to our young lovers’ strengths and tightly tied to their very specific and awfully refreshing perspectives. Lopez plugged herself into the existing blockbuster-rom-com apparatus and got a few watchable and solvent movies out of it, if not a well-aged blockbuster. But in this realm she’s never gotten a role that felt made just for her, and that only she could do justice.

Second Act, with its emphasis on the pitfalls of upward mobility, seems truer to J.Lo’s heart, even if there’s a massive difference in aspirational scale between the actress and the character. But the notion of a role just for her, as she explained to the Times, does not necessarily mean hewing to her life story exactly:

Though Lopez is interested in giving more representation to Latinx characters and artists, she said, she also believes not every story needs that. With romantic comedies and the like, “you just want it to be a person — everyman, everywoman.” The new movie doesn’t explore [her character]’s roots. “It doesn’t matter,” Lopez said, dropping in an expletive. “Like, she’s a person with feelings. That’s it. She’s a human being who struggles.”

The struggle, on screen, has always been very real, even if the fictional human being doing the struggling was not. It’s unfair to hold up the rest of Lopez’s romance-oriented career to Out of Sight, a perfect movie in which she and Clooney marinate in the sort of perfect chemistry even he hasn’t come close to replicating since. It’s not a movie about “real people”—it’s a movie about movie stars generating heat only movie stars can generate. Not everyone can pull off the whole relatability thing. But god bless those precious few humans who can get away with not even trying, and god bless them for still trying anyway.