In Betty Thomas’ The Brady Bunch Movie, the titular clan is every bit as square as it was on the hit sitcom that aired between 1969 and 1974. They wear macramé vests; they have potato-sack races; Mom has a bilevel shag. The catch? The Brady Bunch Movie is set in modern-day Los Angeles.
It’s easy to see why. Making films based on television shows presents a unique set of challenges—the most obvious being that problems whose resolution requires less than half an hour aren’t, on the whole, likely to sustain 90-minute features. (Doubters are advised to try sitting through The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, or for that matter, the film under discussion.) In TBBM, the squeaky-clean TV family members—who apparently reside in a sort of time warp circumscribed by their yard—and today’s harsh realities coexist. The film’s opening sets it squarely in the ’90s: Metal blares from the soundtrack as a ride through Hollywood captures such fundamental modern signifiers as body-piercing establishments, car phones, and “no smoking” signs.
Like The Real Live Brady Bunch, the successful stage musical that used actual scripts from the show, TBBM borrows much of its material directly from the old programs. The scriptwriters (the movie ominously credits two sets of two: the first Laurice Elehwany and Rick Copp, the second Bonnie and Terry Turner, who penned Wayne’s World and Coneheads) allot each family member a dilemma that was once the basis of a half-hour episode. And if you get a huge kick out of recognizing these dilemmas, this film’s for you—after all, celebrating that recognition is its sole objective.
TBBM‘s framing device is provided by an unscrupulous real estate agent (SNL‘s Michael McKean) who wants to buy the Bradys’ property and put in a strip mall. But thematically, this film has bigger fish to fry. To wit: Marcia has agreed to go to the same dance with two boys; Greg wants to be a pop star; Jan thinks her glasses make her look ugly; Peter’s voice is changing; Cindy is a tattletale; and Bobby has been appointed an elementary-school safety monitor.
The film is most effective when it mocks the conventions of television in general, and of The Brady Bunch in particular (though it does nothing that the likes of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker haven’t already done better). The absurd artificiality of many of the show’s trademark features make them ripe for parody: the inevitable tendency of patriarch Mike Brady to cap off episodes with an idiotic aphorism, the jealous voices in Jan’s head as her big sister gets all the attention, the family’s uproarious breakfast-table laughter at unfunny jokes, etc. In one scene, a neighbor even points out something that has perplexed observant viewers for years—how can a family of nine share a single bathroom? (Indeed, recollecting the lack of naturalism in The Brady Bunch and its ilk is an effective reminder of why Norman Lear’s All in the Family, with its scandalous toilet-flushing sound-effect, was considered such a big deal.) Yet these TV-based gags are less period-specific than one might think: After all, why does Jerry Seinfeld live in a New York apartment whose door is never locked and from which his friends come and go at will?
Of course, there are some things you can do in movies that you can’t do on TV. I refer, of course, to indulging in unbridled crudity, which is what the balance of TBBM devotes itself to. This seems an odd emphasis for a film that’s an affectionate look at a bit of archaic “family programming,” but perhaps it was provoked by the show’s implicit denial of sexuality. (The family’s structure is, after all, a recipe for Freudian confusion: six teen-agers, not related by blood, and thus not inhibited by incest taboos, paired up by age and gender like the animals on Noah’s ark.) At any rate, the tastelessness comes early and often: Surprised in the Brady kitchen in his bathrobe, Sam the butcher explains that he was “delivering some meat”; a high-school boy notes that Marcia is “harder to get into than a Pearl Jam concert”; and Marcia’s famous date-shamming excuse, “something suddenly came up,” becomes a horribly inevitable erection joke. All of which hardly leaves time for the lesbian schoolgirl, the nymphomaniac next-door neighbor, or the cameo by RuPaul as a teen-pregnancy counselor.
When it’s not giving Porky’s II a run for its money, TBBM is a harmless vehicle for that oxymoronic phenomenon, ’70s nostalgia. (If you must subject yourself to such things, see Pulp Fiction, and be spared the playground humor.) The cast’s garb alone constitutes a visual running gag, as do props like CB radios (which actually only became popular after 1974) and a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Despite its willingness to poke fun at the artifacts of a bygone age, the film forwards the escapist notion that the anachronistic Bradys are better off than their new-fashioned contemporaries. Like Forrest Gump‘s title character, they understand little of what goes on around them, but their lack of comprehension is depicted as an asset rather than a liability. Here, ignorance is bliss: Cindy gets the cold shoulder from neighborhood kids and smiles contentedly, Greg is the intended victim of a carjacker and insists on shaking hands with his new friend “Jack,” Marcia’s date’s explicit sexual innuendos go unnoticed, and so on. In this neoconservative fable, the family members are not only captives of the past, but all the better for it. Co-producer Sherwood Schwartz has a film version of Gilligan’s Island in the works. Based on TBBM‘s rosy retrovision, we can expect Gilligan to be played by Brad Pitt.