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Scarlett Johansson in the romantic comedy “Space Race”

Scarlett Johansson in the romantic comedy “Space Race”

If Scarlett Johansson, as a Don Draper-level advertising executive wrapped in a Joan Holloway sheath dress and starring alongside Channing Tatum in a NASA screwball romantic comedy, propels you into space, then Fly Me to the Moon is a hit in the way of boring, soothing, disposable nostalgia fare.

And with a reported budget of $100 million, it’s a rare studio comedy from an original script based on nothing else—unless you count Apollo 11, the first successful moon landing led by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But Greg Berlanti’s space-race comedy puts another orbital twist on American history: What if said moon landing had been an elaborate hoax, and what Americans saw on all three major TV networks in 1969 had actually been staged in NASA’s 560-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, with nothing but a crew of inexperienced amateur actors, some rock formations and a replica of the Apollo lunar module? And what if the mastermind behind it all had been a professional con artist, played here by Johansson?

Jennifer Lawrence
MACBETH, from left: Orson Welles, Erskine Sanford, Roddy McDowall, 1948

“Fly Me to the Moon” is snappy at first, with all the charisma and verve of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie before stretching out over multiple encores and a 132-minute runtime. It has the patina of a film that goes straight to theaters as a streaming movie because there’s a backend deal or to satisfy the filmmakers. Apparently, this is the journey Berlanti’s upbeat scent of a rom-com sim has taken, with an impending theatrical release from Sony soon to be followed by a premiere on Apple TV+, where it will finally expire after a brief flurry of activity.

There’s something old-fashioned about this story about the Earth, the Moon, and the gravitational forces that pull them together and apart during the Cold War and Vietnam War. Scarlett Johansson, as Madison Avenue’s superhuman Kelly Jones, channels the “Mad Men” Draper when she scurries into a conference room, seemingly pregnant, and blows the minds of three auto executives by accurately predicting which car each of them owns. But when Kelly later tosses what turns out to be a foam baby bump to her feisty peace-loving assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia), it’s obvious that this isn’t the first time she’s come up with this tough-guy ploy.

FLY ME TO THE MOON, from left: Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, 2024. Photo: Dan McFadden / © Sony Pictures Releasing /Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Fly me to the moon’©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s because Kelly is as fake as her frothing pregnancy belly, having built her career on a mountain of lies to rival that of advertising executive Draper. (Rose Gilroy’s screenplay will reveal more about “Kelly’s” checkered past later.) And from the retro costumes to the banging of typewriters to the ringing of rotary phones, all the talk of Dow Chemical and Heinz and even the cameras being jammed by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the early scenes brim with “Mad Men” energy. Until Kelly is fired from the auto business and hired by the Nixon administration (via a shady CIA-like figure played by Woody Harrelson) to use her advertising skills at NASA to burnish its public image before a divided America.

Like “Mad Men” — and this is the last time I’ll make that comparison, because “Fly Me to the Moon” is not a restlessly curious portrait of midcentury American life in freefall — Berlanti’s comedy is at its best when it’s actually about advertising. Or, in this case, science, rather than the petty problems of Earthlings. Kelly storms into NASA headquarters on day one with a stolen all-access pass and Ruby hot on her heels. Her ultimate pitch for the ad campaign is, well, to lie. Lies about what underwear astronauts sleep in at night or what kind of artificially flavored powdered drink they drink — because if they’re just like ours on Earth, NASA can’t be that bad, right? But if the romantic comings and goings of people on this planet lose as much narrative momentum on Earth as they do here on screen, who wouldn’t want to be shot into space?

Enter Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), a turtleneck-wearing NASA employee and Army veteran who served 52 tours in the Korean War and is not impressed by Kelly’s wiles, however much he may be enamored by her feminine charms. He meets her for the first time by chance in a Cocoa Beach restaurant, in one of those Golden Age Hollywood moments, and with the wisdom to match. Their sweet meeting turns into a flirtation, always on the edge of danger or exposure. They disagree ideologically about how to polish NASA’s image, which has been ruined by a series of public mishaps. Meanwhile, Kelly fears not only that her secret past will be exposed, but also the fact that she will now have to take over the leadership of Project Artemis: to fake the moon landing.

For half a century, there have been hoaxes about the Apollo 11 landing, which saved NASA’s face after the catastrophic failure of Apollo 1 killed all three crew members. These conspiracy theories have included that Stanley Kubrick directed the fake moon landing in question and that The Shining was somehow his strikebreaker’s confession to the world. (There are tongue-in-cheek references to this, such as when a frustrated Kelly Ruby says, “We should have just hired Kubrick.”)

“Fly Me to the Moon” invents an alternate history in which Nixon, to prove that America has a bigger dick than Russia, ordered his secret leadership to stage a fake moon landing in case the real one somehow got out of control. Will today’s audiences be intelligent enough to realize that “Fly Me to the Moon” is a work of historical fiction? Will it send them down the black hole of conspiracy consumerism? (What Is (Super fun, I promise.) It’s fun to watch Fly Me to the Moon play with the public’s imagination about whether or not the Apollo 11 broadcast was real, even if the film veers into groan-inducing jokes in its final third, when filming on Project Artemis stalls and a black cat throws everything off track.

Space fans will enjoy Berlanti’s detailed description of the creation of Apollo 11 and the fascinating facts about NASA. Did you know, for example, that every technician in the control room, those Buddy Holly types who chatter and bang on control panels, has something to say Yes so that the spaceship can take off? But compared to works like Damien Chazelle’s awe-inspiring own journey to the moon, “First Man,” “Fly Me to the Moon” feels shallow, artificial and fleeting.

Is this the future of expensive mainstream adult studio films? The chemistry between Johansson and Tatum is certainly there, and there’s some clever space set-up and nerdy production design, but for the film world, this is hardly a huge leap. Rather, it’s a step that’s been taken before, many times.

Grade: C+

“Fly Me to the Moon” hits theaters on Friday, July 12, and will later stream on Apple TV+.