The Charming Fly Me to the Moon Is Too Straight to Go Full Screwball

Movies Reviews Scarlett Johansson
The Charming Fly Me to the Moon Is Too Straight to Go Full Screwball

It’s easy and fashionable to dismiss a movie as pastiche – empty pastiche, especially; has anything ever been described as rich, full-bodied pastiche? – yet there are plenty of movies that could frankly stand a lot more of it. The charming romantic comedy Fly Me to the Moon, for example, is set in the late ’60s, just as NASA makes a final push in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and feels appropriately out of step with the cinema of its setting. Though expert marketer Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson) and NASA director Cole Davis (Channing Tatum) technically live in a world that’s seen Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (and, as a questionable bonus, also have traces of contemporary dialogue writing that haunts so many would-be period pieces in 2024), they could almost inhabit a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romance from a decade earlier, mixed with a touch of lipstick-selling feminism and retro-futuristic optimism. That’s all part of the movie at hand, but Fly Me to the Moon is a little too timid to fully synthesize those influences – to make the patriotic nobility of the space program subservient to mere pastiche, or even the whims of desire. Ironically, its relative sexlessness is the most 2024 thing about it.

Still, sometimes the mere illusion of sexy pastiche is enough – especially in a movie so enamored with the immaculately faked imagery of advertising. That’s the world Kelly inhabits, with a con artist’s confidence, when Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) whisks her down to Florida. He wants her to gin up some good publicity for NASA, perpetually on the brink of losing its funding. This puts Kelly at odds with Cole, a straight-shooting NASA boss whose own astronaut dreams have been grounded. Despite their differing approaches to the moonshot, the two are clearly attracted to each other, granting both of them an unspoken leeway as Kelly secures advertising tie-ins and Cole focuses on the project’s extraordinary technical difficulty. Sometimes, their endeavors intersect, in scenes where congressmen must be soothed or cajoled in a manner faintly reminiscent of the backstage political maneuvers depicted in Spielberg’s Lincoln. Not being an established politician, Kelly can shapeshift as needed, taking on different names and accents, all for the good of our national pride.

Eventually the movie arrives at what’s been advertised as its main attraction: A contingency plan whereupon Kelly supervises a staged moon landing as a backup, in case the real mission can’t be transmitted quickly, easily or victoriously enough. Has this top-secret fakery gone too far? (Anyone fearful of conspiracy-mongering should rest easy.) It takes long enough to arrive at the soundstage-moon conceit that it seems, at first, like it’s just 15 or 20 minutes that the movie’s own shrewd marketers have extracted to better sell their largely earnest NASA romance. But no, Fly Me to the Moon is just a little slower-paced than it should be, maybe because director Greg Berlanti – best known as a TV guru for the CW network – rarely uses one concise shot where two would do.

Still, this is a major step up from the antiseptic TV-movie shine of Love, Simon, his previous feature. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a frequent collaborator in the visual splendors of Ridley Scott, Alex Proyas and Gore Verbinski, lends this more earthbound creation a nostalgic glow. It’s so visually beguiling that the occasional forays into the actual astronauts’ capsule feels unnecessary, even perfunctory – Berlanti and screenwriter Rose Gilroy do such a capable job keeping our interest on the ground that any attempts at conventional space-travel dazzle fizzles out by comparison.

After all, the movie’s stars aren’t in the sky. Johansson and Tatum have softer, nicer chemistry than a truly great screen couple, but they’re individually convincing, maybe because they both have experience dancing through the artificial 1950s backdrops of the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, where they each played stars of the era before this one. That also might be what generates the longing for Fly Me to the Moon to go zingier, saucier, maybe even flirting with some actual cynicism deeper than using some truth-fudging ads to support a noble program.

Based on how gracefully and unself-consciously she lets her wisecracks glide into the air here, Johansson could handle the ’50s-to-’60s incarnation of screwball – or, for that matter, the short-story tartness of Mad Men. But Fly Me to the Moon is not that; Fly Me to the Moon is a movie that would rather not get into it, thank you, about matters as mildly political as who is actually being referred to when Moe says “the president.” There seems to be a vague understanding that it will probably be Nixon (and by the summer of ’69 launch, it is, of course), but Lyndon Johnson’s name also never comes up. Nixon, as the movie understands, can be an easy, borderline anodyne punchline; Johnson, who knows, best not to think about it, in the name of unity, or something. The whole movie has the tidiness of crisp sheets, neatly folded, never mussed.

That’s not necessarily a problem. There’s certainly room for historically backdropped romance that’s more cute than sexy, more respectful than irreverent, more PG than rated R. (Seriously, it’s easy to suspect a lone F-bomb was added to get this thing over the PG-13 line.) It’s pleasant summer-evening entertainment like something out of 1995, and only occasionally gets too puffed up about what should be modest aims. That’s the advantage of pastiche: It’s hard to do it quite so self-seriously.

Director: Greg Berlanti
Writer: Rose Gilroy
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Anna Garcia, Jim Rash
Release Date: July 12, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including A.V. Club, GQ, Decider, the Daily Beast, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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