The fluorescent clothes, the astroturf, the dialogue so chipper it’s surreal, the hair, the songs — oh, dear God, the songs …. For about the first two reels, The Brady Bunch Movie is like nightmarish science fiction. We’re in Bradyland, or, more accurately, Sherwood Schwartzland — named after the venal TV producer who gifted us with Gilligan and the Skipper as well as the Bradys. Schwartz, a baffling man, has actually claimed social significance for his creations: The Bradys, he has suggested, symbolize the familial fragmentation of the late 20th century. (You don’t want to know what Gilligan and pals represent.) Every few years since the death of the original show, Schwartz has re-animated the Bradys, most recently in a short-lived 1990 series of hour-long dramas — yes, dramas — chronicling the trials and tribulations of the grown-up Brady kids. These attempts failed because … well, primarily because they sucked, but also because the Bradys’ enduring audience wants them just as they were back in the ’70s.
So here’s The Brady Bunch Movie, advertised as a fun ‘n’ bouncy spoof. Actually, it’s among the most deeply cynical movies ever made, and the film’s huge, eager Generation X audience (which is hardly less cynical) bears me out. This audience doesn’t mind Paramount’s naked desire to sell their past back to them, any more than baby boomers minded The Big Chill. This movie will enjoy repeat business — nostalgic twentysomethings will embrace it as a low-rent cheezoid event, an opportunity to get stoned and giggle at the outfits, the vapid line readings. Experienced sober, the movie is just creepy. So much care has gone into the details of this mutant world, and for what? Fidelity to the source? Movies like this and The Flintstones take massive pains to do what is not worth doing.
Aside from that, the movie fails as a comedy. Director Betty Thomas, shackled to a Brady-anthology script by four TV-saturated writers, wants to play it both ways. The movie is a satire; the movie is an homage. The Bradys are out of it; the Bradys are admirable. Waffle, waffle. The Brady Bunch Movie doesn’t commit to any position on the Bradys, which makes this the ultimate Gen-X movie. It holds ’90s grunge culture up for scorn (the way Forrest Gump disapproved of the ’60s hippie culture); you may think the film risks alienating its core audience, but the approach is actually rather shrewd. Young people who hate the way their lives are going can plug into the plastic orderliness of the Brady household, feeling superior to it and longing for it at the same time. So much easier than putting one’s own life in order.
What passes for “satire” here is the contrast between the gee-whiz Bradys and the “real” ’90s. But this contrast is haplessly beside the point. Of course the Bradys are out of step in the ’90s — they were out of step in the actual ’70s, too. Given that the Bradys were always just ’50s stereotypes in ’70s garb, why not re-dress them for the ’90s — have them wearing wannabe-hip grunge outfits, the way the original Bradys took to wearing wannabe-groovy outfits? A truly biting Bradys satire would comment on the absurdity of American pop culture in the ’90s the way the original show now comments, unintentionally and retrospectively, on the ’70s; it would assume the vantage point of hindsight and show us how stupid the hipsters of 1995 will look in twenty years, with their nose rings and Doc Martens and cappuccino fixation. But Gen-Xers, a notoriously touchy lot, don’t care to be shown how ridiculous they often are; they’d rather embrace the goofiness of things past. The smug detachment of Gen-Xers, who take nothing seriously except themselves and exalt what can’t be taken seriously (i.e., pop garbage like disco), gives the movie a faint aura of self-satisfaction. I’m OK, you’re OK — let’s laugh at the goofy Bradys.
At the same time, The Brady Bunch Movie sets the Bradys on a pedestal. There’s no problem they can’t solve, no mess that optimism and hugs can’t sweep up. Rather than subverting this sitcom thinking, the movie buys into it. The Bradys are indomitable, and the proof of that is the movie itself. Yet the script, while scrupulously transcribing plotlines from the original series, doesn’t discover anything new in them. Marcia’s face is disfigured by a football — Ow! My nose! — and the movie misses its chance to point out that her swollen proboscis, by the ’90s grunge aesthetic, might actually be considered attractive; it makes her pristine features more interesting. Mostly, the ’90s touches invading Bradyland are crass and obvious (Greg encounters a carjacker! Ha ha ha! Brilliant!). One promising subplot, in which Marcia’s new friend turns out to be a lesbian with a crush on her, goes nowhere. It’s a bone thrown to lesbian chic, and it’s hypocritical: There’s also a taking-it-in-the-ass joke directed at Mike Brady — a clear reference to the Mike prototype, Robert Reed, who died of AIDS complications. So lesbians are chic, but fags are funny. A lovely, progressive movie.
That’s bad, but what the movie does with (and to) poor Jan is worse. The neurotic Jan, whose life revolves around diverting attention from her rival Marcia, is the one character with identifiable human emotions (and the one many women who grew up in the shadow of a Marcia might relate to). Here, Jan is turned into a contorted psycho who hears voices. The movie makes brutal fun of her. What is going on here? Her obsession casts dark shadows across the astroturf. Betty Thomas and her writers blow a great chance to show us how a dissatisfied girl going through the agonies of adolescence and sibling rivalry — and the only child who isn’t a pod person — would react to life with the Bradys. Maybe she would go insane, but we’re meant to laugh at her nuttiness, when we could have been encouraged to see it as the only sane response. And why not have Jan steal Marcia’s new friend away from her and discover the joys of Sapphic love — finally finding someone who appreciates her? For all its forced bounciness, the movie becomes boring; the missed opportunities pile up, and after a while my attention floated away from the screen and never returned.
The Brady Bunch Movie is profoundly unimaginative about its true subject: the promiscuity of pop culture. Themes are repeated in sitcom after sitcom, down through the decades, each show tailored to fit the sympathies, prejudices, and mood of the day. Why do the Bradys have such staying power? Why do they keep rising from their shallow graves? Certainly it’s not only because they’re goofy — many goofy TV families of the same period have fallen into oblivion. One answer: The Bradys are the purest distillation of the squishy-soft sitcom ethos. At the end of the 22 minutes, the family hugs and learns something. For years, TV executives have tried to recapture the fuzzy family falsehood of the Bradys. And they succeed from time to time. In 2015, we may bear witness to Full House: The Movie, attended by stoned twentysomethings eager to mock their memories.