Space-age rom-com Fly Me to the Moon is a total misfire

click to enlarge Space-age rom-com Fly Me to the Moon is a total misfire
Fly Me to the Moon fails to launch.

If you're making a movie that involves faking the moon landing as a central plot point, it should probably come up before the story is nearly over. That's not how the dreadful alt-history romantic comedy Fly Me to the Moon goes, though, since it takes more than an hour before government operative Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) tells NASA marketing director Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson) that he's going to need her to put together a staged production of the upcoming lunar landing, in case things don't go as planned out in space.

This top-secret conspiracy is a fairly minor plot point in the laborious Fly Me to the Moon, which functions like an out-of-date commercial for the space program with an underwhelming romance attached to it. As the movie opens, Kelly is working as a New York City advertising executive, using her feminine wiles to mesmerize conference rooms full of men so she can pitch them her brilliant ad ideas. She's a slick manipulator with a shady background, but she's no Don Draper, and the movie's take on advertising is more like Mad Men for Dummies.

Kelly's ad wizardry brings her to the attention of the mysterious Moe, who works directly for President Richard Nixon and needs someone who can sell the American public on the space program, given its waning popularity. As NASA prepares for its first manned mission to the moon in 1969, Kelly breezes in to work on media relations and sponsorship deals, much to the chagrin of straitlaced flight director Cole Davis (Channing Tatum).

Kelly and Cole have a meet-cute in a diner before they know that they'll be working together, and their rote conflicts eventually lead to rote romance, although it takes far too long to get there in a movie that unforgivably runs over two hours. Director Greg Berlanti could have staged a zippy, stylish 1960s romance in the vein of cult classic Down With Love, but he plays things disappointingly down the middle, and the movie looks like a bland midrange TV show despite its colorful costumes and set design.

That's no surprise given that Fly Me to the Moon was originally set to go straight to Apple TV+ before being upgraded to a theatrical release, and its meandering plot, dull declarative dialogue and one-note performances seem designed to be absorbed while only halfway paying attention. Johansson and Tatum have no chemistry, and they both look uncomfortable in the period setting — Johansson in some alarmingly unflattering hairstyles, and Tatum dressed in mock turtlenecks and undershirts that make him look like a department store catalog model rather than a rocket scientist.

Berlanti, best known as a prolific TV producer (DC Comics' "Arrowverse"), has trouble shifting tones, lurching from sitcom shenanigans to wink-wink historical references to manipulative, unearned sentiment. Moon landing aside, Fly Me to the Moon is almost entirely fictional, but Berlanti and screenwriter Rose Gilroy use the real-life tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire and subsequent death of three astronauts to give Cole his requisite tragic backstory, and it comes off more like exploitation than tribute.

Fly Me to the Moon is full of misguided plot points like that, including the eventual fake moon landing production, led by flamboyant director Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash). That undertaking suddenly dominates the movie's final act, diverting urgency from the actual moon mission and dragging the plot past its natural stopping point. Instead of sharp political satire about the world's most famous conspiracy theory, Berlanti focuses on cutesy running jokes, including the convenient recurring presence of a black cat that Cole believes is a bad omen for the mission.

Nothing about Fly Me to the Moon works, either as a romantic comedy or as a playful alternate take on a well-known historical event. Its cloying patriotism is more grating than rousing, and the same goes for its central romantic pairing. The moon landing was real, but everything about Fly Me to the Moon rings false.

One Star Fly Me to the Moon
Rated PG-13
Directed by Greg Berlanti
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Woody Harrelson

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