‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Review: Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum Soar in Space Age Rom-Com

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. It was an inspirational moment for people all over the world. But some people are jerks, so they took that inspiration and quickly spun it into a conspiracy theory that NASA faked the whole moon landing on a soundstage.

Hollywood loves to be topical, so filmmakers latched onto this paranoid fantasy immediately. Only two years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, James Bond stumbled across NASA’s top secret film studio in “Diamonds Are Forever.” The government hunted down O.J. Simpson to keep a fake Mars mission secret in 1977’s “Capricorn One.” By the time we got to the present day it wasn’t even a subversive idea anymore. It was just a throwaway gag in kids movies like “Minions.”

Now it’s the premise for “Fly Me to the Moon,” a romantic comedy starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum. But even though the conspiracy theory that NASA faked the moon landing is deeply and depressingly cynical, there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in Greg Berlanti’s sweet, comical and joyous film. “Fly Me to the Moon” uses great screenwriting and good old-fashioned star power to bring a far-fetched concept back down to Earth.

Johansson stars as Kelly Jones, a fast-talking advertising executive hired by a mysterious G-man named Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) to revitalize America’s crumbling space race propaganda machine. While she’s building buzz through fake interviews and product placement deals, NASA’s launch director Cole Davis (Tatum) builds the whole Apollo 11 spacecraft. He takes his job so seriously that he even flips out when he sees a stray black cat toddling across Kennedy Space Center, just in case bad luck is real. When his co-workers tell Cole he’s overreacting, he screams out “You’re not overreacting enough!”

Cole is sincere. Kelly is a compulsive liar. They have nothing in common except a shared and seemingly impossible goal, to land American astronauts on the moon. It’s a formula for romantic chemistry that could be taught in science classes, not just film school. Lesser actors could rest on this premise and get away with it but Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum are on fire. Almost all romantic comedies have a “meet cute” scene, but very few will leave you fanning yourself afterwards. My heavens, Channing Tatum, you’re going to give us all the vapors.

It sounds like hyperbole to compare Tatum and Johansson to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but those shoes fit. Johansson’s high-energy vivacity and Tatum’s sad-sack grumpiness make for a wonderful centerpiece, and then Berlanti fills the rest of the film with memorable side characters, like the diva commercial director Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash), and Kelly’s card-carrying feminist assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia). It’s almost hard to believe this film takes place at a maximum security location since every scene gets stolen by somebody.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shoots “Fly Me to the Moon” with a colorful sleekness, a wistful and sharp evocation of 1960s visual aesthetics that never hits you over the head too hard. (He also has a small role as a cinematographer lighting the moon landing, which is a fun little treat.) Mary Zophres’ costume design and Shane Valentino’s production design make for a spiffy combination.

It’s an inviting place to visit, this version of the 1960s, and although the film is adamant about keeping a light and airy tone, it doesn’t pretend the Vietnam War isn’t happening at the same time, or that President Richard Nixon wasn’t already widely despised. It does, however, pretend that almost no one smoked in the mid-20th century, and that’s as big a lie as the fake moon landing.

This screenplay is one hell of a balancing act. It probably shouldn’t work but it works practically perfectly. Rose Gilroy wrote the script from a story by Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein, and that script segues smartly from frothy romance to teary pathos and back again. Best of all, “Fly Me to the Moon” cleverly takes its bitter conspiracy theory and treats it like a threat instead of a fact. The mission to put a person on the moon was successful because people believed it could be done. The very idea of faking that mission is such an insult to their achievements that it must be stopped at any cost. With those kinds of stakes, “Fly Me to the Moon” never feels weightless, no matter how light it comes across.

It’s fair to say that Greg Berlanti’s film is more successful when it’s funny than when it’s serious, but it never gets sidetracked by one tone for very long. Instead, Berlanti keeps his film zooming along at a brisk, even breathless clip. Always pressing forward, always shooting off sparks. It’s a rocketship ride of a rom-com, and one day — probably not far in the future — I suspect it may be considered a classic.

An Apple Original Film, “Fly Me to the Moon” opens in theaters on July 12 courtesy of Sony Pictures before it hits streaming at a later date.

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