Penelope Spheeris takes on “The Little Rascals”
Back in the ’80s, a prediction that Penelope Spheeris, the maverick filmmaker whose output consisted of disturbing rock documentaries and violent dramas of alienated youth, would someday helm a feature-length version of the Our Gang comedy shorts might have seemed as far-fetched as John Waters directing a remake of The Sound of Music. But a combination of peculiarly fortuitous career moves put her in that position last year, when Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment handed her the reins to The Little Rascals.
A couple of things about the movie are also surprising: One, it’s not half bad; and two, it’s not as much of a stretch for Spheeris as her previous work might suggest. Rascals can be seen as another of the director’s love/hate letters to L.A., where most of her films have been set, and the similarities don’t end there.
Although born in Louisiana, Spheeris has a fascination with her adopted hometown that seemed to be the impetus for her directorial debut, the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. Yet the L.A. depicted here is not one of swimming pools and movie stars; Decline is a searing portrait of the city’s punk scene, the perfect vehicle for examining the brutal anomie that can spring from an artificial paradise. L.A. may not have produced as many memorable bands as New York and England did, but it was certainly peopled by an unforgettable array of eccentrics and psychos, and Spheeris captures them with a candor that’s still likely to shock. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years takes a more international view of rock’s antisocial elements (although much of it is set in L.A.), and while occasionally lighter than the first Decline (the breakfast-with-Ozzy Osbourne sequence is particularly droll), the movie has more than its share of disquieting moments.
The three fiction films Spheeris made in the ’80s Suburbia, The Boys Next Door, and Dudes — constitute an informal trilogy. Where the Decline movies dealt with bands, these looked at their audiences: aimless, nihilistic young people who predated grunge and Generation X. Suburbia is the grotesquely bleak story of a group of kids who occupy a condemned tract-housing development and are subsequently hunted down by the more conventional members of the community; Boys follows two privileged L.A. lads on a weekend killing spree; and Dudes focuses on a trio of freaky teens menaced by rednecks. Prescient as these movies might be at points, they’re not terribly good. While none garnered even the cult rep of the Decline movies, Spheeris’ other ’80s works achieved even less distinction: Hollywood Vice Squad, a routine cheapie whose sole distinguishing characteristic is the presence of Carrie Fisher; and Thunder and Mud, a female mud-wrestling tournament hosted by Jessica Hahn!
It’s likely that Spheeris’ career would have kept on its flashy but desultory way had not mainstream Hollywood come calling with Wayne’s World. Clearly her Decline work got her the gig bringing Saturday Night Live’s public-access metalheads to the movies, but it’s star and cowriter Mike Myers’ parodic, referential sensibility that rules the roost. Nonetheless, WW’s surprise blockbusterdom made Spheeris a natural for yet another TV-to-movie makeover, The Beverly Hillbillies. This time out her flair for the aberrant doesn’t fail her — the movie is replete with tobacco-chewing and roadkill jokes — but her comedic sense does, resulting in a disaster.
The Little Rascals, on the other hand, is a minor delight. By hewing closely to the spirit (and plotlines) of the Hal Roach comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, Spheeris fashions a remake that’s easy to swallow. Her experience with the half-formed humans in the Decline movies may have provided the forbearance to deal with her preteen actors, some of whom, especially Bug Hall as Alfalfa, are so uncannily like the originals it’s frightening. She appears to have a genuine feel for these Depression-era characters retooled slightly for the present day. In their fierce independence and disregard for authority, they’re younger, nicer versions of Suburbia’s squatters — the kind of L.A. denizens that Spheeris has specialized in bringing to the screen. The Little Rascals: B The Decline of Western Civilization and Part II: A- Suburbia, The Boys Next Door, and Dudes: C- Hollywood Vice Squad and Thunder and Mud: D Wayne’s World: B The Beverly Hillbillies: D