Return of the 'Brady Bunch' One of television's loved and ridiculed families is back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles -- There are certain comebacks that make sense and are even, in some cases, well-deserved: Tony Bennett's jazzy pop. Jim Thompson's hard-nosed pulp novels. Thigh-high stockings.

And then there are those inexplicable returns from oblivion, the shifts in our cultural bedrock as difficult to predict or explain as the seismic tremors that routinely jolt Hollywood, the birthplace of much bizarro phenomena.

Which brings us to "The Brady Bunch," the legendarily dumb sitcom that ran from 1969 to the mid-'70s, and cropped up sporadically as TV movies and mercifully short-lived sequel series.

Paramount Pictures has now seen fit to bring the Bradys to the big screen, in a kind of greatest hits collection of old episode snippets.

Surprisingly, these are the Bradys we've been waiting for. "The Brady Bunch Movie" is a Rorshcach test for the generations: Those who hated the series can see the movie as a cannily savage parody of everything that made the show so bad. Likewise, those with fond memories of the show can enjoy its ebullient goofyness.

Directed by Betty Thomas (she starred in "Hill Street Blues"), "The Brady Bunch Movie" brings TV's most fatuous family into the '90s, only to discover they're trapped in a time machine. For the Bradys, it's still a time for pink lip gloss, polyester bell bottoms -- on men! -- and rallying cries like, "Put on your Sunday best, kids -- we're going to Sears!"

Shot to look amazingly like the old series and filled with the sort of awful one-liners that made the show such a joy for masochists to watch, "The Brady Bunch Movie" wallows gleefully in its

mediocrity.

"You explain that to Paramount, I never could," says Ms. Thomas with a smile. "It's a fine line to walk, and the most difficult to deal with was Alice-- her lines are corny, corny, corny. And Henriette [Mantel, who plays Alice] is a very funny comedian who has a very dry delivery.

"There's a scene where she comes home from the meatcutter's ball with Sam, and he gives her a bowling ball. She says, 'You really bowled me over,' and he'd say 'I thought it was up your alley.' She would say these lines, and I would say, 'I can't stand it!' And she would say, 'Do I really have to say this?' "

"It was pretty rugged at times," Ms. Mantel agrees. "But that was the way Alice was. She was always making some stupid joke that wasn't funny. The whole thing was painful. The movie is funny, but watching myself, I was, 'Ay-yi-yi.' "

Two TV alumni play Mike and Carol -- Gary Cole ("Midnight Caller") sounds exactly like Mike Brady, dispensing witless homilies to his brood, while Shelley Long ("Cheers") beams beatifically and stands by her man as Carol. All involved say that the research involved -- watching numerous episodes of the series -- was the most painful part of the process.

"You have to take it in doses," says Mr. Cole. "I'd sit down and watch one or one and a half, but just fast-forward to Mike."

"I'd watch two or three episodes at a time," says Ms. Long. "In the afternoons. I didn't want to force it on my family in the evenings."

Original Brady cast members make cameo appearances. Barry Williams (Greg) plays a music producer and Christopher Knight (Peter) appears as a high school coach. Ann B. Davis, the original Alice, plays a truck driver (named Schultzie, after her character in the '50s series "Love That Bob"), and Florence Henderson (Carol) plays Carol's mother.

Ms. Thomas laments that she had to cut Mike Lookinland (Bobby), who played a cop, and Susan Olsen (Cindy), who played a mail carrier, from the movie, and that Eve Plumb (Jan) and Maureen McCormick (Marcia) declined to participate at all. (Robert Reed died two years ago.)

Ask the new Bradys to play armchair sociologist and they become surprisingly philosophical as to why the show endures.

"That period of time was so brief and yet so specific in terms of fashion and attitude," says Mr. Cole. "It was instantly dated. A couple of years went by and you looked at it and wonder what planet you were watching."

"What were people looking for, and not getting, family wise?" asks Ms. Long rhetorically. "That search came out of a certain confusion of the woman's role and the man's role, because that was changing. But 'The Brady Bunch' was very straightforward: This is how it is, they had it all worked out. It was just a pleasant oasis in a storm of confusion."

Director Thomas is hardly so ruminative. "Republicans maybe understand them, I certainly don't," she quips. "I think this movie is for Newt."

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