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‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Film Review

‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Film Review

A charitable explanation for the new film co-starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum is that the creators got stoned one night and watched the cheesy 1978 movie Capricorn One, about a faked lunar mission to Mars. “Hey, you know what would make this movie even better?” one of them must have asked rhetorically. “If it were a love story, too.”

The result is the misbegotten Fly Me to the Moon, which somehow manages to be less credible than Capricorn One — and that movie featured O.J. Simpson as an astronaut. The film weirdly blends together romantic comedy, historical drama and conspiracy thriller into exactly the sort of unholy mess that you’d expect. Except no one would expect it to be a numbing 132 minutes long. It’s no wonder Tatum looks uncomfortable throughout.

Fly Me to the Moon

The Bottom Line

Failure to launch.

Release date: Friday, July 19
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Jim Rash, Anna Garcia, Donald Elise Watkins, Noah Robbins, Colin Woodell, Christian Zuber, Nick Dillenburg
Director: Greg Berlanti
Screenwriter: Rose Gilroy

Rated PG-13,
2 hours 12 minutes

It’s no spoiler to reveal that a key plot element involves a conspiracy to fake the Apollo 11 moon landing, since the trailer gives it away with all the discretion of a drunken sailor. It’s a ridiculous premise, made all the more so by how long the screenplay by Rose Gilroy (Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein are credited with the story) takes to get there.

We’re first introduced to Kelly Jones (Johansson), an advertising executive whose boldness is demonstrated by a scene in which she successfully pitches ideas to a roomful of skeptical men while wearing padding designed to make her look pregnant. News of her talents have apparently reached Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson, looking like he’s still playing E. Howard Hunt in HBO’s White House Plumbers), a shady, fedora-wearing government operative who recruits her to help NASA persuade people that going to the moon is a good idea.

So she heads down to Florida with her loyal assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia), where she soon has a meet-cute at a restaurant with Cole (Tatum) when he tells her she’s on fire. She thinks it’s a bad pick-up line until it turns out the book she’s reading is actually on fire. The joke is that he meant it literally, get it?

They meet again after she and Ruby settle into their drab office at Cape Kennedy. It turns out that Cole is the launch director for the upcoming Apollo 11 moon landing mission, and he’s not thrilled at Kelly doing what he thinks is an inessential, distracting job. We soon learn that Cole wanted to be an astronaut himself, only to be disqualified because of a heart condition, and that he’s still wracked with guilt over the tragic deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a fire. While the backstory adds some depth to his character, it doesn’t exactly lay the groundwork for laughs.

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Prodded by Berkus, who makes periodic appearances like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Kelly gets to work via tedious subplots involving, among other things, wooing reluctant senators to get their votes on securing government funds for NASA. One of them is played by Colin Jost, Johansson’s real-life husband, in the sort of cutesy cameo that feels like payback for her appearances on SNL. It’s a shame I Love Lucy isn’t still on the air, because you get the feeling that’s where they’d appear together next.

And then the storyline gets really bonkers, with Berkus insisting that the moon landing footage be faked despite the fact that the astronauts are going there for real. The idea is that the government, i.e. President Nixon, is worried something will go wrong and America will lose its standing in the world compared to the Russians. The illicit scheme even has a name: Project Artemis. Ruby hires veteran commercial director and prima donna Lance Vespertine, known as the “Kubrick of commercials,” to come down to Florida and oversee the filming. He’s played by Jim Rash (Community), who can make anything funny, even an Oscar acceptance speech (watch it on YouTube), and proceeds to get the film’s only real laughs even though his pretentious character is a walking cliché. (BTW, Stanley Kubrick is referenced several times throughout, presumably as a nod to the conspiracy theory that he staged the first moon landing.)

Then the movie shifts gears, transforming into a ludicrous thriller that includes Kelly’s desperate effort, accompanied by two hapless NASA engineers, to procure a television — a mission made extremely difficult by the heavy traffic in the area due to the space launch and the fact that all the stores are closed. Then it’s back to farcical comedy, as the ersatz moon landing goes terribly awry thanks to an interloping black cat.

Veteran television director Greg Berlanti (Riverdale, Everwood), who demonstrated real cinematic talent with Love, Simon, is unable to make any of this remotely convincing or, more problematically, entertaining. The wild tonal shifts leave the viewer in the dust, and not even the two stars are able to make any of it work. Johansson (looking fabulous in a dizzying array of gorgeous ‘60s-style outfits designed by Mary Zophres) fares well enough, with her loose, engaging charm serving her well as a character who’s essentially a con artist. Tatum, on the other hand, fails to bring his usual charisma, although to be fair, Cole alternates between being grumpy and glum. Among the supporting players, Ray Romano is thoroughly wasted as a veteran NASA engineer.

Originally set for streaming release, Fly Me to the Moon might attract audiences to theaters on the strength of its marquee-topping leads and the absence of competing romantic comedies. Or, to be more accurate, romantic comedies that also feature dramatic, historical and conspiracy thriller elements.

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