'The New Brady Bunch Movie': innocence adrift

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Please don't tell anybody, but I actually like "The Brady Bunch Movie." If this gets out, I'm ruined.

Anyway, the film is astutely drawn from the brainless early 1970s TV series and built around a clever conceit: The actual TV Bradys, that born-to-be-mild, ever-chipper, ever-optimistic, ever-bland tribe of smiley mooners and bromide-spouting dweezers in the gaudy polyester threads from the pristine early '70s, have somehow been deposited in the center of the gross, seething, violent, cruddy '90s.

The further joke, of course, is that the Bradys don't get it. They're nice, see, they're not smart. They're also not self-aware, deep, pensive or brooding. "Meaning" has no meaning to them. They're just sort of dim but pleasant, as if their cerebellums are knots of pure Tupperware.

Time after time, one or another of them will rub up against the chaos or the random ugliness of the cruel American '90s and encounter some evidence of a totally debauched culture -- teen pregnancy, carjacking, teen sex, mendaciousness, greed, hypocrisy. They're not shocked, stunned, grossed out or turned off. They just look on it with unblinking, uncomprehending baby blues. Then they turn back, unfazed, to whatever meaningless little problem was consuming them.

The producers -- original Brady producer Sherwood Schwartz and Lloyd J. Schwartz, his son, and David Kirkpatrick -- have done an amazing job of re-creating Brady culture almost untainted by modernity. It's not merely that they've assembled the set from blueprints and are shooting on the same sound stage, or that cinematographer Mac Ahlberg has provided a color pallette of washed-out pastels that duplicates the patina of year-old color film blanched of texture after being rerun through the projector a thousand times. The sense of deja vu seen all over again twice extends even to the performers.

I'm no expert and will leave the further exegesis of the materials to true Brady Ph.D.s and department heads, but just about everyone in the film looks pretty much like everyone in the series. That's especially so of Christine Taylor, a near dead ringer for Maureen McCormick, who played the original Marcia, the prettiest and most vapid Brady.

But the film is more about sitcom conventions than it is about its own highly nominal story, a trope that I take derives more from "The Real Live Brady Bunch" stage show than it does from the original, irony-challenged series.

Drawing anecdotes from a number of episodes and arranging them losely into something that might be considered a plot (it involves the attempts of a next-door neighbor, Michael McKuen, to get them to sell their house), the movie studies the ritual weirdness of the sitcom, the banal plotting, the superficial acting, the rhythms of scenes set to hit the punch line just before the commercial break. It's really an essay in hip irony.

It's particularly astute in mimicking the strangely mechanistic repertoire of facial gesture that made the Bradys seem as if they'd beamed down from the planet of the smileoids. Their eyes sparkle, their pug noses wrinkle or twitch, their eyebrows do the hokey-pokey and shake it all about, and one has the sense of strain, of concentration so intense it left the performers limp for a month.

Shelley Long, as Carol Brady, is especially brilliant in achieving that genuinely strange state of face dancing (I can think of no other term) that characterized the original Florence Henderson performance, although she does very little else in the film.

Gary Cole has a perfect deadpan turn as Mike the Dad, in the role that the late Robert Reed played with such zen bland perfection. They've stuck Cole, who was once a great George Custer, under a wig that looks like Cupid's fluffy curls re-created by Monsanto, and with unflappable imbecility he utters homilies so dense they could have been penned by Joyce high on vanilla wafers.

The movie soon finds its own strange and beguiling rhythm. Director Betty Thomas -- once Lucy Bates on "Hill Street Blues" -- takes us into a irrealistic universe in which insipidity is next to godliness, as little crises come and go without causing a ripple of authentic emotion. In fact, what's charming about the film is its sense of industrial-strength syntheticism.

But under it all there's an almost unbearable poignancy. The Bradys, in their bright, stupid clothing and their blinkless blue gaze, seem relics of a lost America. It's not so much that anyone ever wanted to be them, or anybody ever believed in them; it's a sense of mourning for a lost time when we were innocent enough to comprehend them without irony.

"The Brady Bunch Movie"

Starring Shelley Long and Gary Cole

Directed by Betty Thomas

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

***

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