WHO WOULD HAVE thought it possible that so dippy a television program as The Brady Bunch could rise to the status of cult classic? I remember hating it as a kid, finding the family's ordeals unappealing and dull (with the exception of those spooky Hawaii episodes). There was something particularly bothersome about Alice's lack of a life. She seemed to wear that blue apron everywhere.
It wasn't until much later on that I realized what a kitschy gem The Brady Bunch really is. You need only witness Bobby's reaction to his first kiss (he hallucinates fireworks) to understand: the show is the best of the worst. The Bradys combine everything that is ridiculous about TV depictions of family life with everything that was bizarre about early '70s fashion. For many people, the show offers the perfect blend of bad taste and innocence.
The program is such an ideal parody of itself that a Brady Bunch movie seems unnecessary. And yet, with Hollywood's recent trend of capitalizing on American fondness for old TV shows, it was inevitable: Those nine squares have been stretched into nine rectangles for the big screen. Is this what they mean by postmodernism? Cindy Brady lisping in THX sound?
The absurdity of The Brady Bunch Movie's existence is its primary strength. The establishing scenes, which take place on the original set in glaring studio lighting, are meticulously edited renditions of a Brady TV show, right down the to little "twink!" sound when the screen flips around. And the actors, each terrifically well-cast, obviously studied their roles--you can see it in the way Alice (Henriette Mantel) shrugs and smiles after getting hit in the butt with a flying newspaper, or the way Bobby (Jesse Lee) shakes his tilted head when he sees Jan riding her banana-seat bicycle without her glasses.
Director Betty Thomas gets a lot of mileage out of these opening scenes, playing on our recognition of old plot details (a chalkboard in the kitchen reads: "Porkchops and Applesauce") while adding subtle touches of exaggeration to the mix. When Carol Brady (Shelly Long) seductively tells Mike (Gary Cole) that it's "time to put your bookmark in," the innuendo is only a shade worse than an actual episode when Mike told the cowboy-dressed Carol "You can ride my range anytime." You have to marvel at the amount of care and dedication that went into this recreation of silliness. My friend summed it up succinctly as: "I can't believe this is a movie!"
The film's greatest assets are actors Christine Taylor (as Marcia) and Jennifer Elise Cox (as Jan). Taylor, who also performed in The Real Live Brady Bunch stage show, is not only the spitting image of Marcia, she's got the purring-yet-intrinsically-bitchy voice down too. Cox, who has a more caricatured likeness, lights up her eyes whenever something goes wrong for Marcia (such as a football in the nose on the day of the school dance), and reacts to the voice of her conscience in her head as if she were receiving a transmission from aliens. Her weird performance becomes the comic high point of the movie.
I would have been perfectly happy if The Brady Bunch Movie had continued blending old storylines and touching on the quirks of the characters' interactions, but instead the filmmakers send the picture into High Concept Zone by imagining what would happen if the Bradys lived, as real people, in the not-so-innocent 1990s. The idea no doubt looked good on paper, but it only amounts to one joke: whenever something harsh or "modern" happens, the Bradys react with obliviousness. (When a fashion photographer tells Marcia she should cut her hair and get breast implants, she slaps him and shouts, "Cut my hair?!")
After a while, the screenplay's repetition of this joke wears the movie thin. With apologies to the middle brother, you might say the film peters out. The little voices in Jan's head grow into full-scale schizophrenic dementia, but by this time it's no longer funny, and we're relieved when Thomas starts inserting cameo appearances by the original actors, only to discover that they go on far too long. Least forgivable is a sequence in which Sam the Butcher walks out of Alice's room smoking a cigar, and explains that he was "Just delivering the meat." That's the kind of joke we don't need a movie to make for us, and it violates the good-natured tone the picture has set for itself.
Humorously choreographed renditions of those irritably endearing Brady Bunch songs spruce up the film's latter half enough to keep things alive ("Keep on Groovin'" works nicely with the kids dancing their way through a Sears), but as the film ended I wasn't sure whether I'd seen a send-up or a defilement.
Then again, like most TV-shows-turned-movies, you can't expect to enjoy all 90 minutes of something that used to seem just right at half an hour. Perhaps The Brady Bunch Movie would have worked better as a short. As the wise Mike Brady often said to Bobby and Cindy, good things come in small packages.
The Brady Bunch Movie is playing at Century Gateway (792-9000), Century Park (620-0750) and De Anza (745-2240) cinemas.
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