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‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Is One Giant Leap Backwards for Rom-Coms

It has two real-deal movie stars, a sharp premise about marketing the space race and a ring-a-ding retro 1960s vibe. So why does nothing about this movie work?

Fly Me to the Moon

Dan McFadden/Sony Pictures

America is in crisis. It’s the late 1960s, and President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade has yet to be fulfilled. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration — NASA, for short — has experienced a major setback when a launch rehearsal test for the Apollo 1 goes awry and all three crew members perish. The Russkies appear to have the lead in the Space Race, the public interest in conquering the stars is waning, and the organization’s funding is on the chopping block. Only one thing can rescue the goal of planting the stars and stripes in the Sea of Tranquility: A whole lot of first-rate P.R.

Someone like Billy Wilder would have killed with a premise like this back in the day. But there’s still a lot of satirical mileage you can get out of Madison Avenue paving the way for one giant leap for mankind, and how the pioneering spirit that brought Armstrong & Co. to the lunar surface was completely intertwined with publicity and turning a profit. Better yet: Take that scenario and turn it a retro romantic comedy, cast it with a couple of movie stars that can seduce a camera lens and convincingly pull off some swank ’60s duds, and boom! You’ve got yourself some sharp summer counter-programming, as well as the sort of savvy throwback that will get Mad Men binge-watchers and TCM subscribers off their couches.

This is exactly what Fly Me to the Moon should be: a smart alternative to blockbusters about superheroes and tornadoes, a chance to revel in Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson doing Rock Hudson and Doris Day cosplay, an exercise in ring-a-ding style that slings barbs but goes down nice and easy nonetheless. On paper, this thing has all the right stuff. Onscreen, it’s one small misstep for its two stars, and one giant leap backwards for anyone trying to make big-budget movies not based on comic books or toys. You’ve never seen something so fueled up for success simply fail to launch.

So why doesn’t this rom-com fill our hearts with song? If there was ever a modern-day actor who could convince you he’s an old-school astronaut, it’s Channing Tatum, a square-jawed Adonis with impeccable comic timing. You want an actress to play smart, sexy, and snarky, while making a sleeveless crew-bowknot dress look stylish as hell? Look no further than Scarlett Johansson, who can use her husky voice to evoke vintage Hollywood yet knows how to put an ironic spin on stereotypical Sixties moxie. Before her ad agency MVP Kelly Jones and Tatum’s hunky pilot/NASA bigwig Cole Davis lock eyes across a diner, we meet her character selling a group of sexist male execs on the concept of seatbelts in sports car via a combo of sultriness, safety stats and a soulful belief that suckers truly are born every minute. She’s also six months pregnant, a pertinent detail which turns out to be fake. Her skills, however, are 100-percent real.

It’s Jones’ facility with a pitch that finds government spook Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) showing up at her doorstep, ready to recruit her for a special operation. She and her assistant (Anna Garcia) need to go down to Cape Canaveral and turn the upcoming Apollo 11 mission into both a propaganda coup and a corporate cash cow. Suddenly, handsome actors are pretending to be real-life schlubby engineers like Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) on TV, and the Apollo astronauts are gracing the cover of Time Magazine and pitching Tang. Davis may have impulsively blurted out that Jones is the most gorgeous woman he’s ever laid eyes on when she’s sipping a martini in a restaurant, but when she starts messing with the mission he’s running point on, our man in the period-appropriate mock turtlenecks is ready to blow a gasket.

There’s something else that Berkus wants this marketing wizard to conjure up: a back-up plan. Jones has to stage a fake moon touchdown that will be broadcast in lieu of the actual mission, so that the U.S. will get the victory lap regardless. She hires the “Kubrick of commercials,” a.k.a. a diva named Lance Vespertine (Community‘s Jim Rash, in Tony Randall beast mode), to direct it. Naturally, Jones has to keep all of this a secret from Davis. Which is tricky, because they’re falling in love.

All of this sounds great, right? Except, of course, for the fact that screenwriters Keenan Flynn, Rose Gilroy and Bill Kirstein are trying craft a backstage farce out a longtime conspiracy theory that, in the wonderful QAnon-with-benefits era we live in, leaves a rather sour taste on your tongue. And yet even before that excuse for hack showbiz elements becomes part of the equation, Fly Me to the Moon makes you feel like it can’t stick the landing on anything. The banter is written to be read at a screwball velocity (“He’s easy on eyes!” “Yeah, but hard on the ears!”), yet even the more elegant back-and-forths fizzle. Tatum seems uncharacteristically stuck in first gear, despite the fact he has charm, charisma and comedic chops to spare; against all odds and any reasonable laws of attraction, he and Johansson can not seem to gin up an approximation of chemistry. Director Greg Berlanti manages to replicate the tone and feel of a mediocre mid-1960s comedy not wisely but too well, and you can’t tell whether it wants to be cynical in its mating of marketing and post-Camelot mythology or sentimental in its nostalgia for a landmark moment in American can-do history. Somehow, the movie misses the mark on both. It’s a rom-com, not rocket science, people.

Only Johansson and the costume department seem to understand the assignment, and if your idea of a fine night out at the moving pictures is to watch her model dozens of lovingly recreated Sixties outfits, then by all means, pay for the ticket and take the ride. Otherwise, you may find yourself cringing as the Black Widow star tries to singlehandedly rescue this mess in an A-line dress and muttering to yourself: ScarJo, we have a problem. Given the talent involved, Fly Me to the Moon should be the stratospheric answer to our summer-movie prayers. Instead, it can barely get off the ground.

From Rolling Stone US