‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Review: Scarlett Johansson Shines in Space-Age Rom Com

Johansson exudes old Hollywood charisma as a marketing exec staging a fake Apollo 11 moon landing in this throwback screwball comedy.

Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum in Fly Me to the Moon. Dan McFadden/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

What Fly Me to the Moon lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for in stylish charm. The film, from screenwriter Rose Gilroy and director Greg Berlanti, wonders what would have happened if a marketing team had to stage a back-up moon landing in order to sell the Apollo 11 mission to the American people—a conceit that lends itself well to broad-strokes comedy. The movie, brought to life in part thanks to the efforts its star and producer Scarlett Johansson, is a charming, cute possible history, invoking rom-com tactics and old-fashioned appeal in a way that is fairly successful. 

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FLY ME TO THE MOON ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Written by: Rose Gilroy
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jim Rash, Anna Garcia, Donald Elise Watkins, Noah Robbins, Colin Woodell, Christian Zuber, Nick Dillenburg, Ray Romano, Woody Harrelson
Running time: 132 mins.

Johansson plays Kelly Jones, a marketing exec who is like Don Draper if he was chipper, blonde and faked pregnancies to appeal to businessmen in meetings. Kelly, with the help of her trusty assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia), is talented and manipulative in equal measure. She’s something of a con woman, always angling for a particular pitch to succeed without concern for the lies she may have to tell along the way. She’s the perfect person to sell the moon to the American public—or, more specifically, sell brand tie-ins using NASA and its star astronauts—which is exactly what she’s tasked to do by Nixon’s right hand man Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson). 

When Kelly arrives at NASA in Cape Kennedy, she finds her work is cut out for her. The group of engineers planning the launch, who include Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) and Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), aren’t camera-ready and they are reluctant to indulge her confidently laid plans. But Kelly has soon enlisted the Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong,  Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin—to be the stars of her ad campaign. They model Omega watches and sit down for press conferences, all orchestrated by Kelly to make the moon seem more exciting. And despite butting heads with Cole, the introspective, moody mission director, Kelly begins to win over the public, who become desperate to watch the moon landing for themselves. 

But Moe, a shadowy figure who often appears out of nowhere, isn’t convinced that the moon landing is actually going to work. And why broadcast a potentially unsuccessful mission when you can prepare a fake one and air that instead? Soon Kelly is hiring a filmmaker, Jim Rash’s genuinely hilarious Lance Vespertine, and a crew to build a lunar set in a warehouse complete with authentic moon dust. It’s another lie she has no qualms about telling—until sparks begin to fly between her and Cole. He’s grappling with the failure of a previous mission and she’s hiding a secretive past, but they seem to really like each other, a reality that begins to shift Kelly’s willingness to go along with Moe’s plan. 

Although compelling, the narrative is slightly long and unwieldy. There are a lot of characters and a lot of storylines, not all of which are necessary, but Johansson is all in, bringing with her the charisma and levity of an old-time movie star. Tatum, who apparently replaced the intended lead Chris Evans, is effective and funny, although he never quite matches Johansson’s inherent buoyancy. The real success of the film comes from its visual scope, which replicates the late 1960s with uncanny accuracy and colorful enthusiasm. The retro costume and set design is spot on, especially as the team recreates Cocoa Beach, Florida in whimsical pastels and neon signs. NASA was involved in the production, which clearly benefited the design of the launch control room and the nuances of the rocket itself. 

Channing Tatum and Ray Romano in Fly Me to the Moon. Dan McFadden/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

It’s a throwback to an earlier era of Hollywood, reminiscent of the sorts of chaste, high-concept screwball comedies that rarely get made these days. It’s a tribute to Johansson that she guided the film from conception to release. But because Fly Me to the Moon is so broad, it fails to nail the emotion specifics of the story. The romance between Kelly and Cole is sweet, but there’s not a lot of real feeling behind it. Instead, the film leans on its “what if” concept and a few fairly good jokes—A Quiet Place: Day One isn’t the only recent movie with a memorable feline co-star. The history is secondary, although those who remember the Apollo 11 mission will find the nods to the real players and events fun. It’s a reminder that movies can have wide appeal without sex or violence or superheroes, which can only be a good thing for Hollywood moving forward. 

‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Review: Scarlett Johansson Shines in Space-Age Rom Com