Anyone who goes into The Brady Bunch Movie (Paramount, PG-13) expecting a shameless revel in TV nostalgia will, in one sense, be on the mark. The film re-creates the infamously cheesy family comedy series, which ran from 1969 to ’74, with a meticulousness that borders on the devious. Here, once again, is the Brady house in all its ’70s-synthetic glory: the fake brick and homey wood paneling, the orange-shag-carpeted stairs. Here’s the awful hair (Mrs. Brady’s gravity-defying flip, Mr. Brady’s ”hip” perm) and awful clothes: Greg in his polyester-hippie shirts and white thigh huggers, Marcia in her valedictorian-as-cheerleader miniskirts, Mike in his spectacularly ugly psychedelic plaid combos, which seem to get gaudier in every scene, until he begins to look like something glimpsed through a kaleidoscope. Here, too, are the all-new cast members delivering their dialogue with succulently straight-faced aplomb (you know you’re deep in Bradyland when Greg approaches a girl at school with the come-on, ”Hey there, groovy chick!”). Even the actors’ pancake-bland skin tones are eerily right.

The Brady Bunch Movie doesn’t just look like the old TV series — it feels like the old TV series. Yet with one mischievous alteration. The absurd wholesomeness of the Bradys, the quality that made them such an enduring icon for the generation that grew up in the ’70s, has now been turned inside out, so that the film surveys its characters with the same sharp-eyed derisive glee that the audience does. The Brady Bunch Movie is a sly and witty surprise, a mainstream comedy that’s savvy enough to celebrate American pop kitsch by deconstructing it.

The secret of The Brady Bunch‘s appeal, especially among the Gen Xers who caught it in syndication, is that the show worked less as comedy than as fantasy, as a Formica daydream of middle-class contentment. The Bradys, like the Osmonds and the Carpenters in pop music, represented a return to normalcy after the craziness of the ’60s, and the show itself was like Father Knows Best with bell-bottoms. It seemed to be about the Last Functional Family in America, except that since it aired right at the dawn of the age of dysfunction, the squeaky-clean congeniality of the Bradys came off not simply as idealized but as campy-surreal. (The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Brady had their kids separately, and that Alice the housekeeper was essentially their happy live-in slave, seemed the show’s tacit way of acknowledging that a unit this perfect couldn’t possibly have been sanctioned by nature.)

The Brady Bunch Movie plunges the family into the grunged-out ’90s. The entire world has turned cynical — everyone, that is, but Mike (Gary Cole), Carol (Shelley Long), and their neo-’50s brood. The script cleverly interpolates bits and pieces of more than a dozen Brady Bunch episodes, so that the plot, about the family trying to save their home from a corrupt developer (Michael McKean), never intrudes upon the movie’s true subject: the larger-than-life bland outrageousness of the Brady personalities.

Once again, the kids go through every petty, selfish conflict of childhood and adolescence that doesn’t involve the display of actual hormones. The folly of each character is tweaked with deadpan finesse, whether it’s Marcia wrestling with the supreme moral dilemma of how to break a date so she can go out with a cuter guy or Greg strapping on a guitar to become Johnny Bravo, his unbelievably nerdy idea of a rock-star alter ego. The cast members prove masters of wide-eyed mockery. The standouts are Christine Taylor as Marcia, who smiles like an angel as she narcissistically combs her Barbie-doll tresses, and Gary Cole, who re-creates Mike’s singsong fatherly tones with uncanny precision (he dispenses more homilies than a rabbi). The one Brady who seems a tad dysfunctional herself is Jan (Jennifer Elise Cox), her middle-child angst finding expression in a series of increasingly combative ”inner voices,” a sitcom device the movie exaggerates to hilarious effect.

The strange thing is that by the end of the movie you’ve actually grown to like the Bradys for their very doofiness. Like those ’70s-obsessed rec-room slackers, Wayne and Garth, they’re so endearing in their cultural myopia, so completely and utterly who they are, that their every uncool utterance lends them a bizarre integrity. The makers of The Brady Bunch Movie have too much affection for the show simply to skewer it with satire. What they’ve done is closer to alchemy: turned this cheese into comic gold. A-

The Brady Bunch Movie
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Betty Thomas