‘Fly Me to the Moon’ review: It’s a disaster

‘Fly Me to the Moon’ review: It’s a disaster

Don’t be fooled by its nostalgic, romantic title. Fly Me To The Moon is not the winsome, star-led rom-com you might expect. Instead, director Greg Berlanti takes a cheeky premise befitting a bouncy ’60s rom-com and burdens it with dreary NASA drama and a half-baked showbiz satire thread. 

Sure, Fly Me To The Moon has Scarlett Johansson, smiling and beguiling as a Mad (wo)Man who’s cinched and coiffed like a Hitchcock blonde. It’s got a strapping Channing Tatum as the stern Tracy to her beaming Hepburn. The stellar supporting cast, which includes Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Jim Rash, and the splendid Anna Garcia, breathes life into one-liners and extravagantly long bits. But overall, Berlanti lacks the creative vision to pull all this off. 

All told, Fly Me To The Moon is a disaster that fails to launch. 

Fly Me to the Moon does too much… and poorly. 

Cole Davis (Channing Tatum) and Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) in “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Credit: Dan McFadden / Sony Pictures

Set in 1969, Fly Me to the Moon follows an enemies-to-lovers plot line that pits the noble ambition of a moon-landing mission against marketing. In the corner of scientific endeavor stands beefy but taciturn NASA launch director Cole Davis (Tatum); in the other corner swishes metropolitan advertising maverick Kelly Jones (Johansson). He is trying to get America on the moon. She’s trying to sell America on the moon landing. But shucks! The news of late is super caught up with that Vietnam War! 

There’s a jarring disconnect between the movie’s would-be winsome romance and its clumsy handling of the era’s hard-hitting horrors. The jumbled screenplay from Rose Gilroy doesn’t just have its heroine cynically lament about how this grim war’s news cycle distracts from their PR efforts (though she does). Berlanti also douses his sometimes-comedy with reminders of the horrid war. So, anytime his love story might start heating up, real-life carnage hits like a cold shower. The tragedy of the Apollo 1 mission, in which three astronauts were killed, is also a heavy thread, knitting together the life-or-death stakes of Apollo 11 and giving Cole a series of scenes to grieve as that failed launch’s haunted director. 

This remorse explains why he has no patience for Kelly’s relentlessly can-do attitude, the white lies she employs in the name of “selling,” and the persistent distraction she is to his work. (She literally pulls his astronauts away from training for product-placement photo shoots.) However, without her skills at selling NASA to the public, the mission could see its funding pulled. So, selling out is regarded by Fly Me to the Moon as a necessary evil — a point driven home by a climactic kiss that features OMEGA® watches in its cozy close-up of the headlining co-stars. 

The total dissonance of the film might be intentional; perhaps it’s meant to reflect the conflict between the idealistic Cole and the jaded Kelly. While that might be clever on paper, on screen it makes for a deadly tedious film. There is absolutely no flow or momentum to the storytelling, as one scene of utter despair leads into one of of light-hearted flirtation, then to one of clumsy comic mayhem. 

Is star power dead? 

Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson) and Cole Davis (Channing Tatum) in “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Credit: Dan McFadden / Sony Pictures

Critics have been debating this for years now, and Fly Me to the Moon might be further proof that a eulogy is overdue.

Scarlett Johansson gives a lot to this film, including an arsenal of wheedling accents, a megawatt smile that Julia Roberts would be proud of, and a performance that ranges from plucky punchlines to a tearful monologue about a tragic childhood. Yet she can’t dazzle thoroughly through all the shenanigans and tonal turns. Con woman Kelly is so throughly constructed of false fronts that even when she gets to her tender truth, it seems just another scheming schtick — amusing but shallow.  

Tatum is similarly shackled by a script that deflates the himbo allure he perfected in the Magic Mike movies, offering instead a stale archetype of a serious science man. Despite some early antics involving a flaming broom and a black cat, Cole never quite manages to solidify into a compelling fussbudget, molded from the likes of Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, or Rock Hudson. 

Johansson and Tatum don’t share a chemistry that can make this movie work for all its faults. Neither is helped by a plot line that runs in circles of highs and lows rather than a compelling three-act trajectory. As Berlanti has a storied history in television, with credits that include Everwood, Arrow, You, and Legends of Tomorrow, I began to wonder if this premise was originally conceived as a miniseries. This could explain the confounding structure that, at two hours and 10 minutes long, feels agonizing.

Broken up into 30-minute episodes, these jarring tonal shifts might’ve felt less severe, the quirky comedy bits could have been grounded, the dramatic stings given the space to hit with impact. But Berlanti, who won praise at the helm of romantic dramedies like Love, Simon and The Broken Hearts Club, doesn’t have the cinematic vision to pull off all these elements. Instead, he take a tale of love and lies and space, and creates something that is often astonishingly visually flat and uninspired. The whimsy of ’60s comedies and its candy-colored fashion is lost here.

Fly Me to the Moon is nearly saved by its supporting cast. 

Ruby Martin (Anna Garcia), Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson), Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson), and Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash) in “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Credit: Dan McFadden / Sony Pictures

While Johansson and Tatum struggle, the players around them manage to shine. Jim Rash certainly delivers the flashiest performance as Lance Vespertine, a unrepentantly flamboyant and narcissistic commercial director. Rash brings a welcomed chaotic energy to his scenes, issuing outlandish demands and withering remarks with the rapid-fire spray and viciousness of a tommy gun. In him, Fly Me to the Moon scratches at showbiz satire, gleefully mocking the indulgences allowed an arrogant director. But as Rash is used chiefly for breezy comic relief, the finer points of the critique are lost amid the screeching. 

Elsewhere, Ray Romano pops up as a pal of Cole’s to deliver exposition dumps and hit plot points with a practiced efficiency and sly oafishness; Romano turns a thankless role into a needed source of heart. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson strolls into the vaguely threatening authority role he’s played across genres, this time as a mysterious yet intimidating government agent called Moe. He’s on cruise control here, with a fedora doing half the work. Nonetheless, Harrelson is amusing, especially as he casually threatens Kelly, then erupts into the title song as he saunters away. 

However, the standout amid these big names (and Mr. Scarlett Johansson, Colin Jost, who pops by in a brief yet excruciating cameo) is Anna Garcia, a brilliant comedic actress who plays Kelly’s plucky, politically minded assistant.

Plotwise, her Ruby is a confidante to whom Kelly can spill secrets of the fake moon landing, among other ploys. But in execution, Garcia brings a crisp comedy styling that is bright and intoxicating, whatever mess is going on around her. With guest stints on shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Party Down reboot, and various DROPOUT productions, Garcia first caught my eye in the interview parody show Very Important People. Here, Garcia played an eccentric Eurotrash pop star so convincingly that I looked for Princess Emily’s Spotify artist page. (She was probably an Eurovision contender I missed, right?) In Fly Me to the Moon, she steals scenes with sharp asides and eye-catching reactions. Regrettably, as the film plunges into ham-fisted pathos, radiant Ruby is flung off on a lazy romantic subplot involving a character who can be most kindly written off as Nerd Number Two. 

Berlanti aims for the moon and falls far short. 

Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson) in “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Credit: Dan McFadden / Sony Pictures

By taking on a ’60s-style romcom, Berlanti stacks himself against the talents of such influential directors as Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers), William Wyler (How to Steal A Million), Stanley Donen (Charade, Funny Face) and George Cukor (Adam’s Rib, My Fair Lady). By folding in so many earnest elements of space travel drama, he invites comparisons to the celebrated filmmaking of Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), who is repeatedly name-dropped in the film because of those exhausting conspiracy theories. And in every instance, this clunky dramedy pales in comparison, lacking the visual splendor, the emotional resonance, and the incorrigible wit of those that came before. 

With this genre-blending script, Berlanti has a wide sandbox to play in but no idea what to do with all these toys. In the end, Fly Me to the Moon is not just a misfire but a cataclysmic miscalculation, turning out to be far more tedious than enchanting. 

Fly Me to the Moon opens exclusively in theaters July 12.