For five years back in the early 1970s, U.S. TV homes were in the thrall of "The Brady Bunch." Two decades after their small-screen demise, the clean-cut crew is back in mythic form as "The Brady Bunch Movie." Part homage, part spoof, the deft balancing act is a clever adaptation -- albeit culled from less than pedigreed source material.

For five years back in the early 1970s, American TV homes were in the thrall of “The Brady Bunch.” Two decades after their small-screen demise, the clean-cut crew is back in mythic form as “The Brady Bunch Movie.” Part homage, part spoof, the deft balancing act is a clever, engaging adaptation — albeit culled from less than pedigreed source material.

Considerably more problematic are its commercial prospects. It smells like a hit, but not a breakout success. In order to get the joke, it helps to have some passing knowledge of the original. As a stand-alone, film is a tad too insular and its premise strikes a gong only when you understand the precise context of the vignette-structured piece.

With new actors in the roles, age has not withered the Brady brood. They still live in a suburban split-level house and face the travails of job, home and school. Papa Mike (Gary Cole) is hopelessly lost in a bygone era, as evidenced by his architectural designs, pat homilies and bizarre dress style of stripes, patterns and polka dots.

The kids, who wear pastels, are relentlessly cute and obsessed with being popular. Mom (Shelley Long), ever smiling, is concerned about her kids without ever being less than chirpy. In short, this family embodies values that existed only on the tube and, at that, for a brief window of time.

Into this time capsule arrives Ditmeyer (Michael McKean), an obstreperous real estate agent who needs the Brady plot to close a massive land development deal. But no ridiculous amount of money can surmount the Bradys’ love for their home and neighborhood; they exist in a world isolated from outside economic realities. Ditmeyer, who will stoop to any level to shake their resolve, is abetted, unwittingly, by a government tax notice for $ 20,000 in land assessment.

The film’s juxtaposition of contemporary and period realities is taken to extremes. The Brady bubble is lifted intact from a television soundstage circa 1970. Great care has been taken to replicate the artificiality of over-lit, modestly furnished sets. The only thing missing is the guiding influence of a laugh track.

But once out the door, director Betty Thomas opts for real locations and a natural look for a walk on the wild side of L.A. It’s a truly inspired visual contrast, not just a gimmick to elicit cheap laughs. Besides, the family’s ’70s sensibility remains intact regardless of backdrop.

The big surprise of “The Brady Bunch Movie” is its overall artistic care and the high level of technical craft. Transcending nostalgic affection, pic approaches a kind of religious devotion that makes those not of the “Brady” generation ponder why they were oblivious to this “important” social phenomenon.

Thomas has a wonderful cast of young performers (likely nurtured on “Brady” reruns) who understand the gospel of groovy Greg, perfect Marcia and misunderstood Jan. But best of all is Cole — he makes Mike Brady his own as if the role presented the challenge of interpreting a new Hamlet.

The cynical might characterize this deft take on an icon of pop culture as “Much Ado About Brady.” The slightly frightening conclusion is that, by fade-out , even the stony-hearted will believe in this Bunch.

The Brady Bunch Movie

Production

A Paramount release. Produced by Sherwood Schwartz, Lloyd Schwartz, David Kirkpatrick. Executive producer, Alan Ladd Jr. Co-producers, Barry Berg, Jenno Topping. Directed by Betty Thomas. Screenplay, Laurice Elehwany, Rick Copp, Bonnie Turner, Jerry Turner, based on characters created by Sherwood Schwartz.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Mac Ahlberg; editor, Peter Teschner; music, Guy Moon; production design, Steven Jordan; art direction, William Durrell Jr., Nanci Roberts; costume design, Rosanna Norton; sound (Dolby), Russell Williams II; assistant director, Richard Graves; casting, Deborah Aquila, Jane Shannon. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., Feb. 4, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 88 min.

With

Carol Brady - Shelley Long Mike Brady - Gary Cole Ditmeyer - Michael McKean Mrs. Ditmeyer - Jean Smart Alice Nelson - Henriette Mantel Greg Brady - Christopher Daniel Barnes Marcia Brady - Christine Taylor Peter Brady - Paul Sutera Jan Brady - Jennifer Elise Cox Bobby Brady - Jesse Lee Cindy Brady - Olivia Hack Sam - David Graf Eric Ditmeyer - Jack Noseworthy Doug - Shane Conrad Mrs. Cummings - RuPaul Schultzy - Ann B. Davis Grandma Brady - Florence Henderson
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