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The Brady Bomb

Growing up with the Bunch wasn't meant to be this ugly

For those of us on the evolutionary ladder between the Baby Boomers and the Gen X-ers, The Brady Bunch had a purpose. When the Bunch first aired, 1969-1974, we'd come home from school each afternoon, latch keys on grimy shoe strings around our necks, dreading what awaited us. The first generation to grow up with color TV also grew up with full-color coverage of the Vietnam War. We needed the resolutely cheery, earnestly mod half-hour of Brady antics to distance our pre-teen selves from the grim nightly news and the sight of dead, burnt bodies shown during war coverage. The show ended in '74, the war a year later, and Brady Bunch fans went on to puberty and other problems. We thought, perhaps misled by the 166 happy Brady endings, that everything would work out.

We had unpleasant adventures -- Reagan/Bush years and so forth -- and are now aching for something soothing, succor with the pretensions to irony that we need to feel secure. The Brady Bunch Movie might have filled that need. But alas, The Brady Bunch Movie fills no need.

That's too bad; we were certainly ready for the film, even without the massive hype that's preceded this probably-under-$20-million production. The stage was set. And what we are given is not exactly the original, but a detailed facsimile -- a detailed facsimile decorated with tasteless toast-and avocado-colored appliances.

The earnest cast members and the miscast, overrated Shelley Long are decked out in Qiana and tricot. We have three very lovely girls, all of them with Pepto-Bismol pink lipstick, and three boys with big hair. The nominal plot has to do with saving the Brady home, to prevent father Mike Brady's dream design from being bulldozed to make way for a mini-mall. Even with smirking, eye-rolling Long as Carol Brady, this might have worked. It doesn't. The Brady Bunch Movie movie is stupid and ugly and mean.

The original TV show was stupid, but it wasn't ugly, and certainly never mean. This Paramount movie was produced by Brady auteur Sherwood Schwartz, and perhaps as their creator he's too close to them to take a spoofing tone, and too jaded about them to take them seriously. So instead of being a nostalgic, loving parody or a high-spirited, healthy satire, The Brady Bunch Movie is a jarring collection of '70s-specific sight-gags (such as the Partridge Family bus driving by) and mismatched jokes about the original show.

Many of these winking references are made for no reason beyond alluding to the show. At one point, apropos of nothing, polyester-clad, shag-wigged Long steps out onto the Brady's AstroTurf lawn and calls, "Tiger." Then, frowning cheerfully, she wonders, "Whatever happened to that dog anyway?" Though this joke only works for Brady trivia buffs (the dog that played Tiger died during the show's run, and was never replaced), it's not ugly or mean. It's just stupid. But the stupid jokes are outnumbered by the ugly and mean.

The Brady Bunch Movie opens with Alice (Henriette Mantel) being hit in the rear with a newspaper and knocked into the bushes. Mean. When troubled middle child Jan (Jennifer Elise Cox) runs away in her Afro wig, she wanders the modern movie image of Hollywood, passing street whores while the score from Taxi Driver plays. Ugly.

When Jan turns up missing, alarms in the night ensue and everyone is awake and milling about. Then we see, horribly, Alice decked out in a tight outfit that seems a copy of the one worn by Madonna in her "Open Your Heart" video. Why? To what end? Is The Brady Bunch Movie aspiring to an erudite jape? Is this a post-modern comment on Alice-ness? An arch nod to costume fetishists? (The original Alice, remember, was constantly in a crisp, blue maid's uniform.)

Various notes in the movie strain toward po-mo commentary (the reactions of living-in-the-'90s neighbors to the living-in-the-'70s Bradys), arch in jokes (Ru Paul appears) and condemnations of the brainlessness of the TV show (movie Cindy is even more stupid than TV Cindy). The peek into Alice's sex life is plainly cheap and sleazy. Especially when, moments after Alice is glimpsed in her black satin and tassels, Sam the Butcher (David Graf) strolls into the kitchen wearing a bathrobe and smoking a stogie. "What are you doing here, Sam," the assembled Bradys exclaim. "Just delivering some meat," is his leering reply.

The next day, the Bradys and their neighbors gather for a family values love-in, played straight. None of this adds up, or serves any purpose.

Still, even now the movie may be playing to a giddy audience that's singing along to the theme song, and later happily warbles accompaniment to the musical numbers: "I think I'm gonna take a walk outside today ... sunshine day ...." If only this were a sign that we, the TV generation ministered to by Nick at Night's Dr. Will Miller, recognize our need for simple, hokey pleasures and relish a geeky sense of community. But it's not. Positive responses to The Brady Bunch Movie are signs of the worst aspects of geekiness and desperation. And any giggling you may hear is nothing but group hysteria.

The Brady Bunch Movie.
Directed by Betty Thomas. With Shelley Long, Gary Cole and Michael McKean.
Rated PG-13.
90 minutes.

 
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