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The past is always going to be the digging site for studios to look for material in making movies for today. And so it was twenty years ago as well when film adaptations of classic 60s and 70s TV was on the rise. With The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), a show that is arguable one of the most beloved family comedy/drama shows ever created, making a film update must have seemed like a no-brainer, and while a lot of it takes the right tone and is very well cast, is still a bit of a letdown in not taking full advantage of the tropes and overall message of the original.
The story is rather simple of course. No one told the Brady’s that time moves forward so the eponymous family still lives like it’s the 70s (even though everywhere else it’s 1995) and when their quaint neighborhood is being sold for shopping mall space, Mr. Brady (Gary Cole) holds out despite the $20,000 dollars in back taxes owed, so the kids, with Marcia (Christine Taylor) learning how to French kiss, Jan (Jennifer Elise Cox) jealous of Marcia, Cindy (Olivia Hack) tattling on everyone, Greg (Christopher Daniel Barnes) dreaming of singing, Peter (Paul Sutera) worried about his breaking voice, and Bobby (Jesse Lee Soffer) dealing with being the new safety monitor at school, form a musical group and enter the Search for the Stars contest that has a grand prize of, you guessed it, $20,000.
Directed by Betty Thomas, The Brady Bunch Movie certainly goes all-in when updating the series. The cast couldn’t look anymore identical than their TV counterparts and the sets and all-around look is astonishingly accurate. Still, remaking a beloved TV classic is always a risk, and one as revered as The Brady Bunch is asking for trouble, especially by going meta and making it self-aware, a gimmick that has a few perks but gets tiresome quickly as the cast basically runs though the TV highlights as if checking off a list of fan favorites to make sure everyone spent more time thinking nostalgic than considering the story. The filmmakers play it safe by staying in the Brady house for far too much of the film, re-imaging in exaggerated details a host of “classic” moments, it looses the chance to really confront and comment on the disparities of the decades, which could have made for some biting satire rather than cheesy nods to something we already know is silly.
Despite the criticisms of the film and the lack of imagination that could have led to something really fun, there can be no complaints about the inspired casting from little Cindy to Alice the housekeeper. The clothing is truly funny and spot on, reflecting real wardrobes from the original show, and while Cole and the rest are great, without a doubt, it’s Shelley Long who is perfect, from her wispy thin physique to the bouncy blonde bobbed hairdo and her uncanny impression that absolutely sparked the best memories of Carol Brady, unforgettably played by Florence Henderson. It’s a great performance.
There’s a great little moment early one that really captures the Brady’s at their best in harkening back to the original. To be sure, the Brady family are a colorful mix of bland white-bread Americana dressed in big polka dots and abundant plaids in a near constant state of euphoria and familial support. And their kitchen is an iconic place that was a long-established staple of where much of the TV show’s action was set. And that’s right where the movie kicks off.
Early in the film, we are introduced to the cast as the children circle a table with a veritable feast of breakfast foods while Mike and Carol linger near the bright red Formica counter-tops next to the ever busy Alice (Henriette Mantel) who is frosting a cake (and check out the chalkboard that reads “pork chops and applesauce”). This is actually a great way to meet the family and while it pops with saturated colors and the characters slightly over-act to emphasis the drama that was a signature of the series, it feels fresh, even while it pokes fun at the very source it plays up to.
Naturally, it has fun with the petty little issues that by today’s (1995 even) standards seem silly, but were the foundation of the high drama in the TV show. Each of the kids run through their ups and downs and Mr. and Mrs. Brady get to coyly respond to each with the ever-snappy Alice chiming in. The setup is well done and so well executed that it almost unfairly creates a promise that the rest of the film simply can’t deliver upon and it’s not long after that the movie settles into it’s Bradys-are-backward premise that simply feels like a rerun.
Of course, much of the original cast make appearances in the film, with Henderson coming in at the end playing Carol’s mother. The TV series was a silly and often superficial take on suburban life but served as a defining and influential transition of values and approaches across the television landscape that did manage to introduce and tackle a variety of increasingly relevant issues. The film decides to stick mostly to a time-warp concept that ultimately leaves it stuck in its own tracks but does offer a few good laughs and for fans of the show, a fun nostalgic look back. Thanks to some great performances that really ring true, it holds up as a better than average TV program film adaptation.