Halftime review: Jennifer Lopez does documentary her way
Halftime (2022 movie)
Halftime, the new Jennifer Lopez documentary that opened the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, closes with a list of stats, a sort of career-high PowerPoint: 80 million records sold, 350 million social media followers, $5 billion generated in sales "as a brand." It's an odd choice considering the 90 minutes of carefully curated intimacy that precede it, as if we needed to be reminded of her resumé after watching the movie — or stranger still, as if the mere fact of its existence needs to be justified at all. Lopez has been a superstar for nearly three decades now, floating in an echelon so rarified that even her nickname is a globally recognized trademark. And like other superstars — Kanye, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé — she has taken advantage of the recent boom in a genre that is less traditional documentary than a new form of auto-biopic: not entirely under the artists' control, maybe, but very much crafted to the contours of the story they choose to tell.
In that sense, Halftime is often hagiography, but a keen and sympathetic one too, designed to humanize a tabloid-headline life and remind us once again that where she comes from (the Block, the boogie-down Bronx) is as integral to her success as beauty or talent or sheer tenacity. Perhaps more explicitly than ever before, it also connects those facts to her struggles: the micro- and macro-aggressions that have greeted her daily as a Latina and a woman of a certain age in show business; the opportunities offered provisionally, or not at all. The two that dominate here are her Oscar snub for Hustlers, the 2019 movie hit whose glittery veneer of strip-club striving and criming were clever cover for a class-conscious feminist drama, and her 2020 Super Bowl performance, a seeming triumph whose backstage clashes with corporate overlords turn out to be depressingly retrograde.
Casting herself as the little guy is an unlikely look for Lopez, whose public persona has long been synonymous with a kind of jet-set romance and unattainable, almost old-fashioned glamour not seen since the heyday of Elizabeth Taylor. The J.Lo origin story will be familiar to any casual fan: the working-class Bronx childhood, the humble beginnings as a Fly Girl, the breakout in the 1997 biopic Selena and the wild multi-hyphenate ride that followed. Still, it's shocking to be reminded of some of the headlines that accompanied her rise — derisive comments about her body and her love life and her perceived lack of talent that often crossed the line from crass to blatantly disrespectful and cruel, if not outright racist. (Billy Bush asking, with a lacrosse-captain smirk, "How do you feel about your butt?" is a lowlight; Letterman's cracks aren't much better.)
Lopez speaks directly to the camera about all that as montages and supporting clips fly past, as do associates like her manager Benny Medina, who minces few words when it comes to the NFL's decision to double-book the halftime show as a co-bill with Shakira — a job historically handled solo, even by artists with far fewer hits or demographic appeal. But a lot of the film is also consumed with the daily work of la vida Lopez — shot by director Amanda Micheli (Vegas Baby, Cat Dancers) in a style that is too polished to feel fly-on-the-wall, though it's still compelling to witness the grind up close, and be reminded of the heavy logistical work and sweat equity that goes into making it look easy. The movie draws a clear line, too, between Lopez's creative choices for the performance — the cape made of American and Puerto Rican flags, the little girls confined in light cages — and her attunement to the divisive politics of the times, often personified on screen by the presence of Donald Trump.
Micheli doesn't always seem to trust that the audience will follow along without steering them via bright narrative arrows and emotional cues; there's a tendency to rush to fit things neatly in their good and bad boxes, and smudge out the grays in between. And Lopez is rarely lit in anything other than her own luminosity, even in scenes where she is stripped of hair and makeup: She's tough but tender, commanding and nurturing, larger than life but down to earth. (Stars, they're just like an impossibly amplified version of us!) If the messaging isn't always subtle, though, that often seems to be the point. "This is a dark subject matter," she says of her ongoing battle to convey her themes of equality and inclusion with the light cages, among other tense negotiations with the NFL. "But if we can get it across in a beautiful way where it's soft and it can be received, then maybe more people get the message." If she were soft, we know, she wouldn't be here. With Halftime, though, the shiny carapace of stardom is peeled back at least a little bit, and exactly on her terms. From Lopez, would you expect any less? Grade: B
Jennifer Lopez offers a behind-the-scenes look at her Super Bowl halftime show performance and her acting career in this intimate documentary.