Jennifer Lopez was only on the ground for a second at last November's American Music Awards. Like any professional entertainer, she picked herself up, finished performing, and made like nothing had happened. But something had happened, at least symbolically.
Here was a once untouchable superstar who fell on her rear in front of millions of people just as she was trying to launch a comeback with new single ''Louboutins.'' Soon, the image morphed into a metaphor for the troubled state of her career. In the weeks following the AMAs, the singer watched both ''Louboutins'' and another single, ''Fresh Out the Oven,'' flop. Then in February came the news that Lopez and Sony Music, her home for 11 years, were parting ways. (Lopez has said the split was amicable.)
These setbacks might sting less if Lopez's movie career weren't also in flux. Her last big-screen hit, Monster-in-Law, was five years ago, and she's suffered two critical and box office bombs since: 2005's An Unfinished Life and 2007's El Cantante. Her last film, Bordertown, went straight to DVD in 2008. She'll return to theaters on April 23 with The Back-up Plan, a romantic comedy in which her character gets artificially inseminated moments before meeting her soul mate (Alex O'Loughlin). Yet with no other big-name stars in the cast, the pressure to open the movie falls on Lopez.
Still, there's plenty of hope for the 40-year-old star. In January, she earned raves when she did the opening monologue on George Lopez's Lopez Tonight. And when she hosted SNL last month, the ratings were 35 percent above the show's season average. ''There's still a lot of goodwill out there for her,'' says producer Rick Schwartz (The Aviator), who was a production exec at Miramax when it released a number of Lopez movies, including An Unfinished Life. ''If Jennifer Lopez sank her teeth into a great role and just killed it, people would be like, 'Oh, yeah, she's great, and we love her.''' The same holds for the music world, according to Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren: ''America loves a comeback story, and the public will be on her side if she gives them something they want. They don't want her singing about her shoes. Once a star, always a star, and J. Lo is a star.''
So how can she remind people why they liked her in the first place? As Lopez plots her next move, we offer her five possible ways to get things headed in the right direction.
Our Five Favorite J. Lo Moments
1. Work with L.A. Reid on a comeback album
Lopez's camp says she is currently negotiating to sign with Island Def Jam, where she'd work with the company's famed chairman and Grammy-winning producer L.A. Reid the same guy who helped mastermind Mariah Carey's 2005 return to form, The Emancipation of Mimi. Step No. 1? Helping Lopez reassess her sound and audience. ''Early on, she did really well in the pop world,'' says Tom Calococci, program director for pop station Power 96 in Miami. ''But the last four or five years, it's been a whole different audience. Now her crowd is older.'' And with the market dominated by younger artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé, the smart move for Lopez would be to develop a more mature, age-appropriate sound. ''If she tried to make a contemporary pop record that was less hip-hop-oriented and softer, beat-wise, I think she could be very successful,'' says talent manager Jeff Rabhan (Kelis, Kelly Rowland, Jermaine Dupri). ''She could do well with some strong ballads and some midtempos. But trying to compete with that high-energy dance-pop market is a losing venture for her.''
2. Remind us that you can act
The Back-up Plan falls squarely into Lopez's romantic-comedy wheelhouse. Like The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, and Monster-in-Law (which earned a combined $237 million), it finds J. Lo playing an endearing heroine whose happily-ever-after with Mr. Right encounters wacky roadblocks. It could very well be a hit. And so could Overboard, a remake of the 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell comedy that Will Smith's company is producing and Lopez is in talks to star in.
But the fact is, Lopez can't go on making romantic comedies forever. (Just ask Meg Ryan.) The actress herself noted in her SNL monologue that she's now a married mom rather than a single diva with an entourage. So why shouldn't she be transitioning into more grown-up roles that remind us that she's actually a talented actress? She could borrow a page from Sandra Bullock and play against type in a film like Crash. If she seeks out top-tier directors, so much the better she did some of her very best work 12 years ago opposite George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. And how refreshing would it be to see Lopez go gritty? She has rarely, if ever, appeared as anything but an impeccably coiffed superceleb. ''People haven't seen her deglammed, and that hurts her,'' says Schwartz. ''It seeps through to audiences where they're like, 'I can't relate to her.' And it gets harder and harder for her to disappear into a role.'' Charlize Theron and Halle Berry famously stripped away the excess. So did Mariah Carey in Precious. And heck, if the über-image-conscious Carey can do it sans makeup and with a hint of facial hair, no less so can J. Lo.
3. Choose music or acting not both
In 2001, Lopez became the first female entertainer to have both the No. 1 movie and (non-soundtrack) album in the same week, with The Wedding Planner and J. Lo. That's a terrific accomplishment. But as her recent projects have made clear, it's become increasingly difficult to juggle both. So perhaps a little Sophie's Choice is in order. ''To be a successful musician, you have to do that 100 percent,'' says J.C. Spink, who produced Monster-in-Law. ''To be a successful actress, you have to do that 100 percent. If I were her, I'd pick one thing, focus on that, and ask myself, 'How do I turn things around?'''