Credit: Dan McFadden/Sony Pictures
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Fly Me to the Moon — Greg Berlanti

July 11, 2024

Confusing glibness for frothy irreverence, Greg Berlanti’s Fly Me to the Moon primarily caters to two long-underserved segments of the audience: those yearning for the reemergence of the mid-sized, movie star-driven romantic comedy and the conspiracy theory-curious. A speculative history of the events leading up to the July 1969 moon landing, Berlanti’s film isn’t the least bit concerned with the innovation pioneered by NASA or the dedication and sacrifice of the Apollo astronauts — those interested in these sorts of thing are best to stick with the likes of First Man, although admittedly that film has less flirty banter and fewer broad-as-a-barn-door jokes at the expense of the Nixon administration — and instead commemorates the “real heroes” of the space race. Namely, that would be the unflappable (entirely fictional) marketing executive who elbowed aside a bunch of stuffy nerds in Florida and packaged the space program as if she were launching a new campaign for Coca-Cola. Or, perhaps in this instance, a nutritious glass of Tang.

Fly Me to the Moon is primarily a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to play diametrically opposed characters who eventually bicker themselves into one another’s arms. Treating squabbling like foreplay, (although like nearly every other studio comedy these days, the film is completely sexless) the two superstars meet cute in the opening minutes. The film proudly trots out a moldy gag where Johansson misconstrues Tatum’s urging that she’s “on fire” as a pass, when in reality her notebook is literally aflame — why a greasy spoon diner would be lit by tabletop candles is a question only the set decorator can answer — and then spend much of the next two hours hating one another’s guts as a means of sublimating their feelings. He’s Cole Davis, a no-nonsense yet tormented NASA launch director (also, not a real person) who’s saddled with both a heart defect that’s kept him earthbound as well as residual guilt over his role in the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission that claimed the lives of three astronauts. She’s Kelly Jones, a resourceful and similarly tormented Madison Avenue ad woman who, when she’s not dazzling her chauvinist clients with her sales pitches, uses her marketing acumen to reinvent herself, creating distance from her disreputable past and true identity (the film steals so brazenly from Mad Men that you almost have to admire its shamelessness). Recruited by Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson, with the actor’s status as a counterculture figure serving in place of having to write any actual funny lines for the character), a Nixon administration crony and man of well-cultivated mystery, Kelly is hired on to revitalize the space program. With the Russians in danger of getting to the moon first, it’s up to her to get the American public excited about space exploration again as they’ve seemingly run out of patience with the costly boondoggle. After hopping a flight to Cape Canaveral with her girl Friday, Ruby (Anna Garcia), Kelly is soon strolling through classified facilities, having a giant bay window installed in her dreary office, and lobbying for Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to start promoting everything from Omega watches to Fruit of the Loom tighty-whities. And all the while, Cole steams at the bastardization of his beloved space program even as he’s forced to concede that all this extra attention and Kelly’s knack for retail politics has helped open up the government appropriations tap.

Of course, Kelly’s greatest contribution to world events is her brilliant idea to stick a camera on the lunar module, allowing for man’s historic first steps onto the moon to be broadcast around the globe. It’s here, an hour into the film, that an actual plot emerges. With Berkus concerned that a failed mission would be weaponized by the Soviets as propaganda, he strong-arms Kelly into producing, in secret, an alternate version of the moon landing out of an ad hoc soundstage, and hiring Jim Rash’s flamboyantly gay, hack director to run the production (the film steals so shamelessly from The Producers that you almost have to admire its brazenness). A more provocative film might explore the way lies can be used to shape narratives and inspire the public, or it might grapple with what another Apollo 1-style catastrophe would have done to the morale of the nation and the future of the space program. Instead, the entire development is pushed through the prism of Cole and Kelly’s contentious relationship, emphasizing the latter’s unscrupulousness and the way she prioritizes style over substance in the face of the former’s doleful faith in God, country, and NASA. It also shifts the tone of the film in the direction of a manic caper, requiring assorted characters to race against the clock to sabotage and/or repair equipment, race across town, break into electronic stores, and stave off a series of calamitous mishaps during a live, needlessly complicated, taping.

The expression “feels like television” is a bit of a lazy cudgel wielded against films and can mean pretty much anything, ranging from being overly dependent on shot-reverse-shot coverage to having an inadequate budget to convey scale or production values to simply being episodic in nature. But the expression can also speak to the way television (network comedies, especially) functions as comfort food; depending on familiar set-ups and superficially clever patter that has the cadence of jokes without ever actually saying or doing anything particularly amusing. That’s what Fly Me to the Moon feels like. You can hear every arched eyebrow, tongue in cheek, and eye roll in the performances of the actors as they deliver self-satisfied dialogue that has the general shape of screwball repartee without the verve to really make it sing. Instead, we get wan zingers about persnickety directors complaining about not having a trailer or poke-you-in-the-ribs gags about how in 1984 women will finally have equal rights or how they probably should have hired Kubrick instead to film their fake moon landing.

It should be noted that while Berlanti has directed films in the past — most recently 2018’s gay coming-of-age story Love, Simon — he’s primarily known as a television writer-producer extraordinaire (he was one of the driving forces behind the CW’s long-running, endlessly expansive “Arrowverse”), and at the risk of being reductive, Fly Me to the Moon is the sort of film that feels designed to be viewed at home, perhaps while folding laundry. On television, the film’s many, many product placement shots will feel right at home as the glorified commercials that they are. From the safety of one’s couch, the film’s practiced rhythms, easily anticipated punchlines, and hastily resolved conflicts might take on the qualities of a cozy sweater, allowing the film’s general disinterest in its own internal logic to become less of a stumbling block. Instead, one can appreciate the undeniably pleasures of Johansson, costumed in vintage-couture capris, form-fitting sweaters, and Marilyn Monroe wigs. Or the way the actress trots out a handful of colorful southern accents or pulls obscure personal details out of thin air (pre-Internet, all the more impressive) as a tribute to the character’s past pulling Paper Moon-style scams. That won’t help Tatum any though, cast against type in a role that plays to none of his strengths as the dour straight man, nor does it compensate for the lack of romantic fireworks between the film’s two leads. For that matter, it does little to mitigate how, dispositionally, none of these characters feel like they belong in the 1960s — the two films couldn’t be more different tonally, but just contrast how lived-in something like The Bikeriders, set at the exact same historical moment, feels compared to Fly Me to the Moon. In the end, this is a film about trying to pass off an expensive-looking yet fundamentally dishonest copy as the genuine article in the hopes no one will notice the difference. Sometimes, it seems, the critiques write themselves.

DIRECTOR: Greg Berlanti;  CAST: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johnasson, Jim Rash, Woody Harrelson;  DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia Pictures;  IN THEATERS: June 12;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 12 min.