Movie Review: Scarlett Johansson lends star power to earthbound ‘Fly Me to the Moon’

Fly Me to the Moon ” is better than it looks.

This is not a slam against the marketing campaign for the space race rom-com about a straight-laced NASA man and the Madison Avenue marketing savant brought in to sell the mission to the moon. It’s more about the state of theatrical moviegoing.

A film like this, with legitimate movie stars in Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum, a slick, glossy look, an original concept, and a sparkling title, is not a commonly occurring phenomenon at the local cineplex. We’ve been conditioned to see something like this and assume one of two things: It’s the product of a high-spending streamer, or it’s fake, like one of those movies-within-a-movie that’s mostly there for laughs but also at least somewhat plausible.

Both assumptions are on point, but the former is essentially true: This is an Apple production that like “Napoleon” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” is going to theaters first, on Friday, through a traditional studio (Sony’s Columbia Pictures). It's not just a gesture to theaters either — it's streaming date has yet to even be announced.

The director is television veteran Greg Berlanti, whose films include “Love, Simon” and “Life as We Know It.” Here he seems to have taken a stylistic and tonal page from Peyton Reed’s “Down with Love,” that 1960s via 2003 Rock Hudson/Doris Day pastiche starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. The script, by Rose Gilroy and story, by Bill Kirstein and Keenan Flynn, is lighthearted and breezy with a pleasing screwball energy, giving Johansson the opportunity to use the full wattage of her movie star power as the shrewd, self-made Kelly Jones. She’s a kind of female Don Draper minus the melancholy and dalliances, but with some secret baggage and the ability to charm and persuade just about anyone.

If you make it past the opening montage, a cringey history lesson that has all the depth and nuance of a half-page, single-space elementary school report on the space race, you’re in for a mostly pleasant, if meandering, ride compliments of Johansson, who produced, Tatum and a talented roster of supporting actors (Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Jim Rash). Tatum might be a little miscast as the NASA launch director (and Korean War vet) Cole Davis. Though he is a good match for Johansson and the bevy of knit sweaters he sports throughout, his portrayal makes Cole too instantly likeable for there to be any sort of dramatic stakes or tension. Whether this was a miscalculation on the script level, the direction or the casting is hard to say. But there is no will-they-won’t-they, only when-will-they, which is not compelling storytelling when your runtime stretches over two hours.

This is a movie that is in no rush to get anywhere fast. In fact, the main selling point of the trailer, that Kelly has been hired to stage a fake moon landing in case anything goes wrong with Apollo 11, isn’t even introduced until deep into the film. It’s not the point of the story at all, just an aspect of it, which is a little disorienting during a first-time viewing. Rash, as a diva director-for-hire for this top-secret film project, makes these scenes very funny (although the recurring Kubrick jokes fall flat). Most attempts to reference the era beyond the great costuming and production design are also quite superficial – it’s a kind of rose-colored-glasses version of the late 1960s in which racism and homophobia are practically nonexistent. Misogyny and former President Richard Nixon are punchlines and tolerable nuisances.

Another blunder was spending too much time with the Apollo 11 astronauts, down to the obligatory launch – a sequence that we’ve seen so many times and so much more effectively that there is little to be gained in clumsily shoehorning it in this kind of film. It’s just an expensive distraction, grasping at grandeur that it didn’t really need.

“Fly Me to the Moon” is best when it’s not taking itself too seriously. And the most worthwhile concept it sold is the idea of Johansson and Tatum (which, by the way, is a great reminder to rewatch “Hail, Caesar!”) as a modern Day and Hudson. They have the charm. They just need material that does it justice.

“Fly Me to the Moon,” an Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 for “some strong language, smoking.” Running time: 132 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.