Millennial Malaise 41: The Brady Bunch Movie

In Which Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

The 90’s were the decade that officially wrought the era of reboots in which we currently live. It was the moment when the first post-war generations finally, fully grew up, and could yearn for the popular culture of their pasts. The 90’s also paved a clear road for making this phenomena feel more acceptable. After all this was the decade of irony and “nothing matters” detachment, wouldn’t hearkening back to the times of clear moral grounding and legitimate stakes be good for the culture? Wouldn’t entrancing the then modern era with a sense of vigor and purpose help set the MTV generation right?

And The Brady Bunch Movie answers those questions with a triumphant, not really, and in a fashion that makes for a funnier movie. For a film that boldly proclaims that the Bradys are, “back to save America from the 90’s” the move is a cheekier bit of cultural skewering than one might anticipate. Yes there are many easy (albeit amusing) jabs a life in the Go-Go 90s, but director Betty Thomas is able to deftly weave a more interesting yarn about how the culture of the past mingles with the culture of the present in ways both daft and trenchant.

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So what are those Bradys up to this time. Well it looks like scuzzy real estate agent Larry Dittmeyer (Michael McKean at his most unrelentingly prattish) wants to scoop the iconic Brady home and sell it to land developers, and he might just have the prime opportunity when Mike and Carol Brady (Gary Cole and Shelley Long) discover that they have thousands of dollars in back taxes unpaid. With the help of their myriad kids, the bunch work to save their home, and their way, of life from being destroyed.

From a distance the structure and beats of The Brady Bunch Movie look like a trite piece of reactionary nostalgia bait. That the perfectly groomed family of eight white, blond, and sexually inert people could wrangle the the culture wars of the 90s. Instead Thomas constructs a clever bit of commentary that not only points out that the Bradys are bizarre relics in the 90’s, but they were bizarre relics in their own time. A perfectly sterilized family unit to serve as a soothing counterpoint to the chaotic America of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In fact it’s more ironic that The Brady Bunch could be held as a paragon of virtue against events like The Vietnam War and Kent State Massacre, something so aggressively anodyne that it’s almost an assault on reality.

That fracture is what Thomas is able to exploit in her film, translating that disconnect and heightening it to the greatest extreme imaginable. It’s beautifully executed with a simple bit of formal invention that gives the film its edge. For whenever the story ventures into the home of the Bradys it rigorously conforms to the limits of the TV show: few camera moves, flat lighting, and square, head on framing to make everything as clear as possible. Once a Brady steps out into the tumultuous landscape of contemporary LA the world shifts: the colors drain out, the camera becomes very active, and everything is covered with a fine sheen of filth to the drill the point home. It’s a bit of construction to literalize what all the other characters say; the Bradys are from another world.

Thus the whole family is run through the same ringer, taking the quirks from the TV show and leveraging them into bizarre pieces of humor. Marcia (Christine Taylor) is still a vacuous airhead, but what was once a flaw is now a piece of virtue. Her clueless demeanor allowing people around her to project whatever emotion they have on to her pretty face. She’s a conspicuous throwback to some of the 70’s cool that seeped into the current culture, and her guilelessness is now looked on with admiration by friends and classmates as above it all aloofness.

The comedic centerpiece of the film is Jan (Jennifer Elise Cox), a character whose defining feature is being looked down upon (the long life of “sure Jan” will certainly do that to a girl) and thus finally cracks under the pressure. The result is an existential/psychotic break where Jan stares intently at her sisters as demonic inner voices argue about what actions she should do to get attention. It’s a pretty straightforward conceit, but the intensity of Cox’s performance, and the strange turns the narrative takes (which includes a trip to a student counselor played by RuPaul) allows Thomas and Cox to create a committed and oddball series of comedic set-pieces.

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The rest of the family’s business is less immediately striking (Mike tries to pitch one architectural design over and over, Greg tries to make money by selling a drippy folk song), but it’s bundled together with a verve for the strange and outre that makes the project so endearing. Even the main plot is wrapped up in a strange meta manner, with the members of the Monkees judging the Bradys showstopping performance with high marks. It’s a hat on top of a hat, at once calling back to the Bradys success as a variety show, while winking to the artificiality of the whole thing by including The Monkees.

The Monkees seem like a good counterpoint to what’s going on here. Yes they were the toothless made for TV pop group that nabbed from the culture for purely commercial purposes, but they’re also the people that made Head. While The Brady Bunch Movie is far from the psychedelic anarchy of Head, it accomplishes a similar goal: transforming the utterly anodyne into something with a little bite.

Odds and Ends

  • “Put on your Sunday best kids, we’re going to Sears”
  • “But Jan you don’t have any friends”
  • It’s only hinted at here, but yes the Brady’s have a weird incest vibe going on, that as I understand it, is expanded upon in A Very Brady Sequel.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week we once again dip into the year of 1999 to pull out the grand extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.