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‘Fly Me to the Moon’ review: Scarlett Johansson can’t fully rescue this space rom-com

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

In “Fly Me to the Moon,” a shiny, tinny hunk of speculative fiction with a lunar dust sprinkling of fact, Channing Tatum plays the NASA launch director in charge of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. But it’s Scarlett Johansson, as the Madison Avenue wizard selling that mission to the American public, who emerges as this movie’s real launch director.

She has an ear for this stuff, and this “Mad Man”-adjacent era — the brio and energy, an easy facility with dialects (her character’s a born deceiver) and an instinct for navigating the story’s whiplash transitions from screwball to pathos to patter to angst to aggressively chaste romance. In theory, Tatum is along for the ride to provide the “va” in conjunction with Johansson’s “voom.” But he seems lost here, and in any case is not really your man for quippy, fast-moving banter of any quality. The stars’ chemistry feels tentative to the point of the opposite of liftoff: driftoff.

Miraculously, Johansson salvages whole flaming chunks of director Greg Berlanti’s rom-com/political conspiracy/faked-moon-landing hybrid. Going for laughs one minute, solemn heartbreak the next, it’s a movie about advertising and the ethical limits of deceiving the public in the name of space-racing against the Russians. “Fly Me to the Moon” is also a movie about the narrative limits of cramming six movies into one, and the challenge of selling a luxe period romance (production budget: a reported $100 million, much of it going to star salaries) without blatant deception regarding what “Fly Me to the Moon” is, and isn’t.

Here’s the fact part. The real NASA, clouded by the 1967 test launch fatalities incurred by the Apollo 1 disaster, turned around its public image and wavering political support with the help of public relations and marketing consultants. Screenwriter Rose Gilroy takes it from there, ginning up a push/pull attraction between Johansson’s glamorous Kelly Jones and Tatum’s straight-arrow Cole Davis. Jones more or less takes over the Apollo 11 project, in the weeks leading up to the summer ’69 launch, with her aide-de-camp (Anna Garcia) in tow. Kelly has been recruited for the assignment by a shadowy government operator (Woody Harrelson) who is all too aware of her shady, blackmail-able past.

From there, the selling of Apollo 11 goes beyond marketing tie-ins (Tang, Omega watches, etc.) and into “Capricorn One” land. Doing her handler’s bidding, Kelly is tasked with establishing a secret film set within the NASA facilities, where an artful pretend moon landing is prepared (without Cole’s knowledge) under the direction of Kelly’s temperamental gay cliche of an auteur (Jim Rash). This complication puts the movie in a really tough bind, the tangling and untangling of which leads to at least 20 too many minutes. Ray Romano does nicely as Cole’s right-hand NASA man, playing for sweet sincerity more than laughs. This is right alongside feline slapstick involving a presumably unlucky black cat running around the NASA facilities, to Cole’s dismay.

Johansson sells all the disparate elements as well as possible, even the inevitable sour section of “Fly Me to the Moon” where Kelly must atone for her amorality. But the script never quite feels itself; it feels like contradictory impulses playing out in shuffle mode. And the scale of the movie does the putative romance no favors.

Is money the real enemy here? Maybe. When commercial entities as disparate as “The Fall Guy” (which I liked, for an hour), “Don’t Look Up” (smug, shrill), and “Fly Me to the Moon” cost about $100 million to make, it’s because a significant percentage of their budgets went to above-the-line movie star salaries. And suddenly you’re talking about movies that should be a certain size becoming immense in terms of what they’ve gotta make to make any meaningful profit. (“Anyone But You,” meantime, made hay on a medium budget and only semi-expensive stars.)

“Fly Me to the Moon” director Berlanti and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski create a lush, spacious widescreen frame, with scads of extra room for the costly complement of visual effects. Meantime, weird little misjudgments undermine the visual quality of how the movie actually looks. Early on there’s a sight gag, an explosion that sends Tatum hurtling through the air, that’s too much of a jump scare to be funny. With all the convincing Apollo launch trickery, you’d think the effects teams could come up with better flames for a simple scene of a NASA test lab on fire. Also, what’s with the mystery of the Tatum character’s plastered-down hair? I checked, and there’s not a real-life equivalent haircut in all of 1969-era America.

Ordinarily, one bum haircut doesn’t merit mention in a movie review. But here the little things add up, and help explain why bigger things don’t. When one of your stars periodically saves the movie’s behind, while the other star can’t get a characterization together or even breathe properly through a few lines of dialogue, what chance does the mission have, really?

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‘FLY ME TO THE MOON’

2 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, and smoking)

Running time: 2:12

How to watch: In theaters July 12

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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