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‘Fly Me to the Moon’ launches Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum in a space-race romance

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — After a run of movies awash in the romance of the space program like “Hidden Figures” and “First Man,” “Fly Me to the Moon” cleverly uses the Apollo 11 mission as the backdrop to an old-style romance. Less than weighty in the comedy part of its equation, the film largely works as a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum, even without completely sticking the landing.

The movie casts Johansson as a corporate marketing specialist, which is somewhat ironic given that its marketing campaign isn’t as clear as it could or should be in terms of conveying what to expect.

While the story does include a subplot about staging a fake version of the moon landing – orchestrated as a back-up plan by a shadowy government operative (Woody Harrelson, again serving as one of the president’s men, echoing his role in “White House Plumbers”) with ties to the Nixon administration – the heart of the film resides in the chemistry between the leads. In classic fashion, they are of course instantly drawn to each other, creating the need to erect barriers in order to keep them apart.

In that sense, this is less about conspiracy theories and reality – though there’s definitely an element of that woven into it – than the tension between NASA’s square-jawed launch director, Cole Davis (Tatum), and Johansson’s Kelly Jones, who gets recruited to “sell the moon” to a skeptical public, leveraging her knack for bending the truth in order to close the deal.

Coming almost exactly 55 years after Neil Armstrong took that “one giant leap” onto the lunar surface, director Greg Berlanti and writer Rose Gilroy introduce a strain of cynicism well suited to our current moment, juxtaposing that with the soaring, can-do spirit of the Apollo program.

There’s a crowd-pleasing quality to the combination, even if any crowds might prove short lived, inasmuch as the film’s theatrical prospects (before a date on Apple TV+) amount to serving as counter-programming to the blockbuster “Twisters” and “Deadpool” sequels soon to come.

A prolific TV producer, Berlanti has tilted toward romance with his forays into movies, including “Love, Simon” and “Life as We Know It.” “Fly Me to the Moon” occupies a higher orbit in its ambition and star power, and it doesn’t hurt that his leads look pretty celestial, while bathing in the period costumes and music of the time.

After an eclectic string of roles, Johansson carries a film that might have starred someone like Faye Dunaway during the era in which it’s set (think “Network”), while Tatum gets put to better use than his most recent rom-coms, the third “Magic Mike” and “The Lost City,” admittedly not a super-high bar.

Perhaps foremost, “Fly Me to the Moon” possesses appealing virtues consciously plucked from the past, then adorns them with modern baubles. Whether that will “sell the moon” to the moviegoing public remains to be seen, but to borrow from the song that shares its title, the pitch isn’t much more complicated than an invitation to come play among the stars.

“Fly Me to the Moon” premieres July 12 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)

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