"Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"
When this magic mantra rings out across the land on Friday, it won't be the sound of Judge Lance Ito admonishing the head prosecution lawyer in the O.J. Simpson trial. Instead, that's the catch phrase du jour that'll be echoing around another big, mysterious cultural phenomenon America can't seem to get enough of. The Brady Bunch Movie is the latest chapter in the public's weird, seemingly never-ending fascination with the grooviest squares to ever bop across our collective consciousness.

O.J.'s legal problems are one of the very few contemporary issues the Stepfordlike stepfamily doesn't grapple with during its big-screen bow. Starring Shelley Long and Gary Cole in the roles created by Florence Henderson and Robert Reed, with a sextet of young unknowns rounding out their brood, the film finds the Bradys marooned in an early Seventies time warp. This go-round, they're an Astroturfed island of tranquility surrounded by gangs, grunge, carjackings, condoms and other tsuris of the Nineties.

Hunky Greg fends off advances from Mrs. Ditmeyer (Jean Smart), the horny, alcoholic housewife who lives next door. The neurotic Jan pours out her heart to RuPaul, the transvestite high school counselor. Meanwhile, a lesbian classmate is putting the moves on the babelike Marcia. And unable to pay a tax bill--the family spent its life savings on trips to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon, remember?--the entire Brady clan faces homelessness.

If none of this sounds much like creator Sherwood Schwartz's oft-rerun story of a lovely lady, a man named Brady and their extended, polyester-clad clan, that's precisely the point.

Feigning comic desperation during an interview in Beverly Hills earlier this month, The Brady Bunch Movie director, Betty Thomas, dramatically rakes her fingers through her hair and drops her head to the table.

"When they first said they'd like to send me the script, I said, 'Don't bother--please,'" says the Emmy-winning actress/director. "`The Brady Bunch!? Uh, I just don't understand it.'" There's plenty not to understand. How do you even begin to account for the Trekkerlike success of a sitcom whose plot lines revolve around such mundane cliffhangers as the search for a lost locket or the consequences of playing ball in the house? But the phenomenon is undeniable: In addition to the new movie, spin-offs from the original show include a Saturday-morning cartoon show, a weekly TV variety show, two prime-time series, a Christmas special, a touring stage production and a fanzine. "These characters represent something," says Thomas, even though she, like everyone else, is at a loss to explain just what that "something" might be. "I'm not a sociologist, but there must be a reason this is happening, beyond the money. Kids don't read books anymore. I don't know--maybe the Bradys are like classic Little Golden Book characters." Whatever the appeal, Thomas says she immediately realized that knocking these cultish icons off their platform pedestals was not the way to usher the Bunch onto the silver screen. "You can't rip the Bradys apart," she maintains. "If they went outside their general behavior pattern too much, it became bad. It just didn't work."

After numerous false starts and not a little postproduction tampering, the bobbing-headed Bradys can now hold their heads high as they gaze out at audiences from their big-screen checkerboard. In one early version of the script, however, Mike was reduced to flipping burgers at McDonald's, while housekeeper Alice was transformed into an insatiable nymphomaniac. Also gone is the original ending featuring Alice riding on a wrecking ball as it demolished the Ditmeyer home; it was scrapped when it tested poorly. The finished film cleverly combines in-jokes, celebrity cameos like the Partridge Family's bus and a handful of subplots borrowed from the series--Marcia takes a football in the face, Jan hides her "hair of gold" under a wig. The result is a comic macram, a no-brainer with smarts.

More than a movie, it's also a test of audiences' "Bradyosity"--bonus points to moviegoers who pick out the reference to Ann B. Davis' first TV role or recognize the sly homage to Eve Plumb's notorious post-Brady outing as a high school hooker in the made-for-TV movie Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.

Although Shelley Long is the film's biggest name, the real stars here are the members of the creative team responsible for re-creating the frighteningly accurate Brady "look." The exterior of the Brady home was constructed over the faade of a house in Encino, California, and the interior sets were reconstructed from old blueprints on the same sound stage on the Paramount lot where the sitcom was shot. After 25 years, the Studio City, California, home used for exteriors on the sitcom no longer looked the way it did in 1969.

Says an awestruck Jennifer Elise Cox, who plays the neurotic Jan, "It was like walking on hallowed ground. I felt like I was walking into a TV set."

In fact, the Brady epic is probably the only movie in memory in which incidental set decoration gets a bigger reaction than some of the star cameos: During one recent screening, audience members oohed and aahed among themselves about such beloved Brady props as a horse statue, a stuffed giraffe and even a napkin holder. Audible gasps greeted the appearance of Christine Taylor, an uncanny Maureen McCormick look-alike who does for Marcia Brady what Martin Landau did for Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

The cast members, most of them either too old or too young to have caught the sitcom during its early Seventies network run, prepared for the roles by watching tapes of the old series.

"I wasn't really a Bradyite when it was first on the air," confesses Shelley Long, who nevertheless does an amazing job of capturing Florence Henderson's perky "Wessonality" on-screen. "I wasn't really watching any television then--I was trying to get my own career off the ground. But I heard about the Bradys, though. I knew they were doing their thing and America was talking about them."

Ditto Henriette Mantel, a standup comic who won the role of Alice by showing up for the audition with a hamperful of dirty laundry. "For me, the Seventies was marijuana and Watergate," says Mantel, who prepped for the tryout by watching 30 episodes in a week. "Up until the time I auditioned, I had never watched the sitcom, never ever. I still haven't watched The Partridge Family yet--and I'm not gonna."

Cast as the eternally moralizing breadwinner of the Bunch, former Midnight Caller star Gary Cole jokes that he got into Mike Brady's disco-permed head via a more circuitous route--by studying another unlikely pop-culture hero who hasn't done badly for himself.

"If you think about it, Forrest Gump and Mike Brady are never seen in the same room," says Cole. "If the other Bradys are oblivious to the world, he's oblivious to the world and his family. He could talk and they could all go have lunch and come back and he wouldn't know. This guy was aware of nothing." Director Thomas, meanwhile, is aware that if positive prerelease buzz is any indication, a Brady sequel is almost inevitable. That prospect triggers another comic outburst, and she grimaces wildly.

"You would think that after hours, days, weeks and months--ten months!--of watching the Bradys, I would want to die," she says. Simulating a dazed countenance, she adds, "Then I see them on the screen, and when I watch them, I find myself sitting there like this. These people are hypnotizing.

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Dewey Webb