Scarlett Johansson stars Don Draper and Doris Day in a bubbly, volatile space-race romcom

Starring Scarlett Johansson as a Don Draper-caliber ad executive in a Joan Holloway sheath dress and a NASA screwball rom-com starring Channing Tatum opposite your space flight, “Fly Me to the Moon” is a bull’s-eye for a blandly reassuring, disposable tale of the past.

And with a reported $100 million budget, it’s a rare studio comedy with an original script based on nothing else — unless you count Apollo 11, the first-ever successful landing of a man on the moon, led by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But Greg Berlanti’s space-race comedy puts an alternative spin on American history: What if the moon landing was an elaborate hoax, and what Americans saw on all three major networks in 1969 was actually staged inside NASA’s 562-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, using nothing more than a crew of inexperienced non-actors, some rock formations, and a replica of the Apollo Lunar Module? And what if the mastermind behind it all was a professional con man, played here by Johansson?

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Initially flashing with the charisma and verve of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson film before overstaying its welcome with multiple encores and a 132-minute runtime, “Fly Me to the Moon” has the sheen of a straight-to-streaming film that was thrown into theaters for the sake of a backend deal or to appease filmmakers. That, apparently, is the journey Berlanti’s spicy vapor of a rom-com sim has taken, with an upcoming theatrical release from Sony quickly followed by an Apple TV+ premiere, where it will permanently expire after a brief flurry of activity.

There’s an old-fashioned quality to this tale of the Earth, the moon, and the force of gravity pulling them together and apart during the Cold War and Vietnam Wars. Scarlett Johansson, as Madison Avenue superhuman Kelly Jones, oozes “Mad Men’s” Draper when she enters a conference room, apparently pregnant, and blows the heads off three auto executives when she predicts exactly which car they’ll each own. But when Kelly later throws what turns out to be a baby bump at her feisty assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia), it’s clear that this isn’t the first time she’s pulled this bun-in-the-oven trick.

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 frothy pregnant belly, having built a career on a mountain of lies comparable in size to ad executive Draper’s. (The screenplay, by Rose Gilroy, will reveal more about “Kelly’s” checkered past later.) And from the retro costumes to the clacking typewriters to the ringing rotary phones, all that talk of Dow Chemical and Heinz, even the camera-blocking by cameraman Dariusz Wolski, the opening scenes buzz with “Mad Men” energy. That is, until Kelly is fired from the auto business and recruited by the Nixon administration (via a shady CIA-like figure played by Woody Harrelson) to take her advertising skills to NASA to polish the public image of 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 American life in freefall in the middle of the last century — Berlanti’s comedy is at its best when it’s actually about advertising. Or, in this case, about science, rather than the petty problems of Earthlings. Kelly bursts into NASA headquarters on day one with a stolen all-access badge and Ruby hot on her heels. Her ultimate proposal for an advertising campaign is to, well, lie. Lie about the underwear astronauts sleep in at night or what artificially flavored powdered beverage they drink — because if they’re the same as ours on Earth, how can NASA be that bad? But if the romantic arrival and departure of humans on this planet loses as much narrative power on Earth as it does on screen, who wouldn’t want to be shot into space?

Meet Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), a turtleneck-wearing NASA employee and an Army veteran who served 52 missions in the Korean War. He’s not so keen on Kelly’s wiles, but he is on her feminine wiles. He first meets her by accident at a Cocoa Beach restaurant, in one of those Golden Age Hollywood moments with an intelligence to match. Their encounter evolves into a flirtation that always teeters on the edge of danger or exposure. They disagree ideologically on how to repair NASA’s image, which has been tarnished by a series of public mishaps. Meanwhile, Kelly worries not only that her secret past will be exposed, but that she’ll now also be tasked with leading Project Artemis: staging the moon landing.

For half a century, hoaxes have been circulating about the Apollo 1 landing, which saved NASA face after the catastrophic failure of Apollo 1 killed all three crew members. These conspiracy theories include that Stanley Kubrick directed the aforementioned faked Moon landing and that “The Shining” was somehow his underdog’s confession to the world. (There are winking references to this, as when a frustrated Kelly tells Ruby, “We should have just hired Kubrick.”)

“Fly Me to the Moon” imagines an alternate history in which, to prove that America had a bigger dick than Russia, Nixon ordered his top secret agents to stage a fake moon landing in case the real one somehow got out of hand. Will today’s audience be intelligent enough to know that “Fly Me to the Moon” is a work of historical fiction? Will it plunge them into the black hole of conspiracy consumption? (Which is (Super fun, I promise.) It’s a joy to watch “Fly Me to the Moon” play on the public imagination about whether or not the Apollo 11 broadcast was real, even if the film descends into hilarious, groan-inducing antics in the final third, as Project Artemis filming begins to go awry and a black cat becomes the thing that throws everything off axis.

Spaceheads will enjoy Berlanti’s detailed description of the melting pot of how Apollo 11 came to be and NASA’s fun facts. Did you know, for example, that every engineer in the control room, those Buddy Holly types who keep babbling and hammering on switchboards, has to say Yes to launch the spaceship? But compared to works like Damien Chazelle’s own awe-inspiring journey to the moon, “First Man,” there’s something flat, fake-feeling and ephemeral about “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Is this the future of big-budget, mainstream studio adult films? There’s certainly chemistry between Johansson and Tatum, and some clever space intelligence and nerdy production design, but this is hardly a major leap for the movies. It’s more of a step that’s been taken before, and many times before.

Grade: C+

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

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