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What do you get when you cross Apollo 13 with a Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy? Wait, why even try? Fly Me to the Moon is a platypus of a movie, and while it definitely has its charms, bizarre or not, you might find yourself more intrigued by the binding wire that holds it together than what’s actually inside.

Still, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum are at odds and in love – how could that not be good business in terms of on-screen chemistry? And it is, even if the two stars have to contend with contrived dialogue and some unflattering costume and hair choices. The year is 1969 and NASA is fighting a rearguard action to launch Apollo 11 in an America exhausted by war, assassinations and protests. Why spend money to send people to the moon when everything on Earth is on the verge of collapse?

Stressed mission leader Cole Davis (Tatum) galvanizes his team to move on, but someone high up in the Washington food chain decides a PR campaign is in order and sends a gleefully sinister government agent (Woody Harrelson) to recruit Kelly Jones (Johansson), a Madison Avenue advertising genius who first caused confusion in a conference room full of swinish Ford executives. Flown to Cocoa Beach, Florida, with her sassy young assistant (comedian and actress Anna Garcia), Kelly sets out to sell America on the moon landing while driving Cole mad.

As long as Fly Me to the Moon stays on the easy level of Irresistible Force (Kelly) and Immovable Object (Cole), the film is decent, easygoing fun. Kelly arranges product sponsorships (most of them genuine—remember Tang?) and gives astronauts Neil Armstrong (Nick Dillenburg), Buzz Aldrin (Colin Woodell) and Michael Collins (Christian Zuber) an all-American hero makeover. In other words, she humanizes the mission and gives it lead characters and a plot. All of this drives Cole—a fighter pilot and scientist with a congenital allergy to lying—to a real freak out.

Tatum brings across the sincerity of his square-jawed character with an undertone of old-fashioned patriotism, and is so good that you forget how sharp his comedic timing can be. Fly Me to the Moon is built on the framework of a classic screwball comedy, where the man represents order and the woman is the agent of pure chaos. Think Hepburn and Grant in The Kiss – Mr. Orthodoxy meets Miss Catastrophe. But while Johansson does her best, she may be too thoughtful an actress for Kelly to really let loose. There’s no madness in her, and so the romance never really gets going.

The screenplay by Rose Gilroy, based on a story by Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein, does not help matters, as it juggles the love story with a serious treatment of the preparations for the Apollo 11 mission, and that is Before the sinister government agent shows up again and insists that Kelly stage a secret, fake moon landing on a recording studio in case the real one goes wrong. (I’m not telling you anything that’s not in the trailers.)

It’s true that in a romantic comedy, one of the lovers always has to have a secret, so that there can be second-act betrayal and conflict, but this – this is crazy. The film’s staged moon landing is, of course, a nod to conspiracy theories that emerged in the 1970s, which claimed that the Apollo program was a hoax by NASA, directed by Stanley Kubrick (who is mentioned in passing in “Fly Me to the Moon”), designed to deceive the Soviets. (1977’s “Capricorn One” also helped popularize the myth by replacing the moon with Mars.)

Director Greg Berlanti (“Love, Simon”) conjures up some healthy slapstick from the sound bites, but the whole subplot has a queasy feel, as if pretending the joke actually happened is enough to wake the crazies up again. But “Fly Me to the Moon” is like that throughout: broad farce, serious historical drama (there’s more than one visit to the memorial to the fallen Apollo 1 astronauts), light romantic comedy, suspense and more, all packed into two hours and 12 minutes of bumpy entertainment. (Resolved: A good romantic comedy shouldn’t be more than 90 minutes long.)

Some good actors get lost in the shuffle – Garcia, Ray Romano as Cole’s boss, Noah Robbins and Donald Elise Watkins as young NASA employees. As the blatantly gay commercial director hired to film the mock landings – his name is Lance, for heaven’s sake – Jim Rash is so elegant that you overlook Paul Lynde’s subtle comedic style. “Fly Me to the Moon” tries hard to take off, sometimes in quite amusing ways. But in the end, the film is just too heavy to take off.

From 13 years. In the theaters in the area. Contains Some strong language and smoking. 132 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the newsletter with film recommendations Ty Burr’s Watch List at

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