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The Brady Bunch Movie

(Betty Thomas, USA, 1995)


 


The Brady Bunch Movie has been disparagingly called a one-joke movie. This is true, but the one joke is pretty good, and it goes a long way.

In Hollywood parlance, this is a high concept movie. That means it has a nutty, slightly surreal, but absolutely winning premise – an idea that yokes together two very different elements. High concepts in modern American movies are one-sentence hooks like: ‘aliens land on earth and become famous game show hosts’, or ‘a lonely young teenager has scissors for hands’, or ‘German kids during the rise of Nazism expressed their resistance to Hitler by jitterbugging to American swing music’.

The ingenious promotions for The Brady Bunch Movie give you its high concept in a nutshell: what if TV’s Brady Bunch, dinosaurs from the ’70s, were found absolutely intact, preserved like living specimens, in the ’90s? Accordingly, the film has two beginnings. The first is a droll introduction to modern America – it is all stress, aggro, congestion, noise, technology, alienation. And then suddenly there is that famous credit sequence from the TV series with each Brady in their own little graphic box, smiling and rolling their eyes madly.

The film is pure camp, at least according to one very sound definition of camp. Andrew Ross, in his book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (Routledge, 1989), suggests that we find camp as the dried out husks of yesterday’s popular culture – especially old images of sweetness, light and harmony like the Brady family. Maybe, once upon a time, when these images were current, we believed a little in this dream of innocence and vibed along with the warm feeling it gave out. But looking back on it now, it all seems so alien. The saccharine emotions and sickly sweet ideology no longer convince us.

I am perfectly aware that, even in the ’70s, The Brady Bunch was conceived as a comedy, not a grim political tract securing the sanctity of the nuclear family. But in The Brady Bunch Movie, the original comic element of the TV series is doubled, and thus completely transformed. The joy of the movie is that it allows audiences a vicious comic revenge on all the retrograde stereotypes and values of an earlier era that is not so far away in time from our own. The movie gives an instant critical distance on ’70s television, and an understanding which may not be very deep, but is certainly delicious.

Only those who have a prior acquaintance with The Brady Bunch are in a position to appreciate the craft and ingenuity of the film. It is an astonishing instance of what is called, in some circles, appropriation art. Whole slices of episodes of the TV show – dialogue, events, gestures, even plot lines, are reproduced almost exactly. The sight of the Brady girls swinging their blonde hair about as they leave a room scarcely requires any exaggeration at all for it to be screamingly funny, no matter how many times it is seen.

The best thing about the film is that the Bradys stay perfectly in character, as though locked up in a time capsule throughout. Hardly ever do they say anything that is a nudge-wink reference to the film’s whole camp project. Everything around them, at school or at work, screams the modern world and the mid ’90s. There is a hysterical scene where the middle Brady daughter, Jan, goes to see her school counsellor. This very odd looking therapist salaciously quizzes her: "Is it teen pregnancy? Bulimia? Suicidal impulses?" Jan, like all the Bradys, neither hears nor understands such ’90s babble. She is fixated on whether or not she should wear her glasses.

The Brady Bunch Movie is terrific pop entertainment. Some of the big movies adapted from old TV shows, like The Addams Family (1991) or the excruciating screen version of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), have been disappointing. These films have fought with a problem which is inherent to such adaptations. TV sitcom families are, by their very nature, incredibly static units. They rarely move very far from the house, and if they do, the plot is structured in such a way that they will always end up back home, exactly as they started, ready for the next circular adventure. Movies, generally, deal in much larger narrative shifts – the plot elements, the settings and the characters usually have to be moved around or transformed rather more dramatically. But The Brady Bunch Movie embraces the fact that its TV characters are static and unchanging; it builds the whole gag around that fact. As a one-off high concept, it is a treat. I hope its makers do not spoil the neatness of the joke by plunging into the production of a sequel.

the inevitable sequel: A Very Brady Sequel

MORE Thomas: I Spy, Private Parts, 28 Days

© Adrian Martin April 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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