‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Review: Scarlett Johansson Goes Don Draper and Doris Day in a Fizzy, Fleeting Space-Race Rom-Com

If Scarlett Johansson as a Don Draper-level ad executive wrapped in a Joan Holloway sheath dress and in a NASA screwball rom-com opposite Channing Tatum floats your spaceflight, then “Fly Me to the Moon” hits the target square on the head for blandly reassuring, disposable throwback fare.

And to the tune of a reported $100 million budget, it’s a rare studio comedy from an original script that’s not based on anything else — unless you’re counting Apollo 11, the first-ever successful man-on-the-moon landing led by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But Greg Berlanti’s space race comedy puts an alternative orbital spin on American history: What if said moon landing was an elaborate hoax, and what Americans saw on all three major broadcast networks in 1969 was actually staged inside NASA’s 562-feet-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, with nothing but a crew of unaccomplished nonactors, some rock formations, and a replica of the Apollo Lunar Module? And what if the mastermind behind it all were a career con artist, here played by Johansson?

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Zippy at first with the charisma and verve of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie, before it way outstretches its welcome across multiple encores and a 132-minute running time, “Fly Me to the Moon” has the patina of a straight-to-streaming movie tossed into theaters due to a backend deal or to appease filmmakers. Seemingly, that’s the journey Berlanti’s peppy vapor of a rom-com simulation has taken, with a theatrical release incoming from Sony followed swiftly by an Apple TV+ premiere, where it will permanently expire after a brief flurry of activity.

There’s an old-fashioned quality to this story of the Earth, the moon, and the gravitational forces pulling them together and apart amid the Cold and Vietnam wars. Scarlett Johansson, as Madison Avenue superhuman Kelly Jones, oozes “Mad Men’s” Draper when she swishes into a conference room, seemingly pregnant, blowing the heads off three auto executives when she predicts exactly which car each of them owns. But when Kelly later tosses what turns out to be a foam baby bump off to her zesty peacenik assistant Ruby (Anna Garcia), it’s obvious that’s not her first time cooking up this bun-in-the-oven ruse.

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

That’s because Kelly is as phony as her foamy pregnant paunch, having built a career on a mountain of lies similar in scale to ad man Draper’s. (The screenplay, by Rose Gilroy, will reveal more about “Kelly’s” checkered past later.) And from the retro costuming to the punch of typewriters to the ringing of rotary phones, all that talk of Dow Chemical and Heinz, and even how the cameras are blocked by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, early scenes hum with “Mad Men” energy. Until Kelly is fired off the car business and commissioned by the Nixon administration (via a shadowy CIA-type figure played by Woody Harrelson) to bring her advertising smarts to NASA to spiff up its public image before a divided America.

Also like “Mad Men” — and this is the last time I’ll make that comparison, as “Fly Me to the Moon” is no restlessly inquisitive portrait of midcentury American life in freefall — Berlanti’s comedy is at its best when it’s actually about advertising. Or, in this case, about science and not the petty problems of earthlings. Storming into NASA headquarters on day one with a stolen all-access badge and Ruby at her heels, Kelly’s ultimate ad campaign proposal is to, well, lie. Lie about what underwear astronauts sleep in it at night or what kind of artificially flavored powdered beverage they drink — because if they’re the same as ours down on Earth, NASA can’t be all that bad, right? Though if the romantic comings and goings of people on this planet lose as much narrative momentum on Earth as they do onscreen here, who wouldn’t want to be blasted into space?

Enter Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), an exclusively mockneck-sweater-wearing NASA employee and army veteran who served 52 missions in the Korean War, who is not keen on Kelly’s guiles, as keen as he might be on her feminine wiles. He first meets her by accident at a Cocoa Beach restaurant, in one of those moments ripped from the Golden Age of Hollywood and with smarts to match. Their meet-cute turns into a flirtation always at the edge of danger or exposure. They’re ideologically at odds as to how to facelift NASA’s image broken by a series of public mishaps. Meanwhile, Kelly fears not only her secret past being outed, but also the fact that she’s now also tasked with heading up Project Artemis: faking the moon landing.

There have been hoaxes for half a century about the Apollo 11 landing, which saved NASA’s face after the disastrous failure of Apollo 1 killed all three crew members. These conspiracy theories included that Stanley Kubrick directed said faked moon landing and that, somehow, “The Shining” was his scab’s confession to the world. (There are winking nods to this, as when a frustrated Kelly tells Ruby, “We should have just hired Kubrick.”)

“Fly Me to the Moon” imagines an alternative history where, to prove America had a bigger dick than Russia, Nixon ordered his secret top brass to stage a fake moon landing in case the real one spun somehow out of control. Will today’s audiences be intelligent enough to know “Fly Me to the Moon” is a work of historical fiction? Will it send them down the black hole of conspiracy consumption? (Which is super fun, I promise.) There’s pleasure in watching “Fly Me to the Moon” play on the public imagination of whether or not the Apollo 11 broadcast was real, even as the movie pratfalls into groan-inducing hijinks in its last third, as the Project Artemis shoot starts to unravel, and a black cat becomes the thing that throws it all out off its axis.

Space heads will enjoy Berlanti’s detailing of the crucible of how Apollo 11 came to be and the NASA fun facts throughout. Did you know, for instance, that every technician in the control room, those Buddy Holly types jabbering away and hammering at switchboards, has to say yes in order for the spacecraft to launch? But up against works like Damien Chazelle’s awe-packed own trip to the moon, “First Man,” there’s something flat, fake-feeling, and fleeting about “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Is this the future of expensive mainstream studio movies for adults? There’s chemistry, for sure, between Johansson and Tatum, and some savvy space smarts and nerdy production design, but this is hardly a great leap for the movies. It’s more like a step taken before, and many times, too.

Grade: C+

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

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