FILMS

A lovelorn stranger in a strange land

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN Directed by Susan Seidelman

LAWRENCE O’TOOLE April 8 1985
FILMS

A lovelorn stranger in a strange land

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN Directed by Susan Seidelman

LAWRENCE O’TOOLE April 8 1985

A lovelorn stranger in a strange land

FILMS

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN Directed by Susan Seidelman

The immense changes in style and attitude that flowered with the arrival of the new wave’s feisty, urgent music more than six years ago are slowly finding their way into mainstream film-making. That style, which is primarily ironic and also aggressive, flourishes charmingly in Desperately Seeking Susan. The attitudes it skewers with deadpan wit—primarily middle-class values emphasizing conformism and status symbols—reflect playful new wave rebelliousness. The young director of Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman, made her first feature, Smithereens, three years ago on a shoestring budget. And although Desperately Seeking Susan is a major Hollywood studio film, it retains the same casual quality of her first effort, which was about losers on the fringes of society.

Desperately Seeking Susan is lighter and bounder—and it is about winners.

Leora Barish’s script, laden with coincidences, cleverly imitates and lampoons the ridiculous middle-class comedies of the early 1960s. The plot, which features a New Jersey housewife who becomes involved with new wavers, smugglers, magicians and the police through a case of mistaken identity, defies logic. Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) is an avid reader of the personals column in the New York Mirror. She becomes obsessed with one recurrent ad, always headed “Desperately Seeking Susan,” placed by a man named Jim. The ad touches a desperate need for romance in the bored and repressed Roberta, whose husband, Gary (Mark Blum), is a genial but insensitive hot-tub salesman. Roberta decides to spy on Jim (Robert Joy), a musician, and Susan (rock star Madonna in her movie debut), who meets him at their desig-

nated spot in the park. The skimpily and outlandishly dressed Susan fascinates Roberta, and she follows her. When Susan trades her sequined j acket for a pair of spike-heeled silver boots, Roberta buys the jacket.

With that purchase, Desperately Seeking Susan becomes enjoyably, giddily complicated. Roberta finds a key in the jacket and arranges a meeting with Susan to return it. What neither she nor Susan knows is that a mean, blond smuggler (Will Patton) is on Susan’s trail. (Susan unknowingly has a pair of priceless earrings in her possession.) When Roberta appears in Susan’s jacket for their meeting, the smuggler mistakes her for Susan and, in the fracas that follows, Roberta falls and hits her head. At the same time, Jim has sent his best friend, Dez (Aidan Quinn), to the

meeting, and Dez also mistakes Roberta for Susan.

Amnesia is one of the most tired devices of storytelling, and the film-makers knowingly exploit Roberta’s. She falls in love with Dez, walks the streets carrying a hat box painted with skulls, is hired as a bewigged assistant at the seedy Magic Club and is arrested for soliciting. In short, she becomes more liberated than any New Jersey housewife ever dreamed of being. Although she has no idea who she is, Roberta is quite happy with what she has accidentally become. When she falls and hits her head again —coming to her senses —she decides to discard her old existence of Saturdays at the hairdresser.

With a dour wit, Desperately Seeking Susan criticizes the clichés of middle-class existence. “It’s got to be a cover,” says Susan while reading Roberta’s diary. “Nobody’s life could be that boring.” And the movie revels in the irony of two types as disparate as Dez and Roberta falling in love. The theme of Desperately Seeking Susan is the strangeness of romantic love, which no one can account for.

To emphasize that strangeness, director Seidelman has shot New York as if it were the metropolis of some distant planet. The fashions are outrageous, the lighting is otherworldly and the color scheme—soft pinks, lavenders, electric blues and gleaming greens—is an unabashed riot. The performers, too, seem completely removed from their surroundings, particularly the befuddled Robert Joy as Jim and Madonna as the slatternly Susan of no fixed address. Both Arquette and Quinn have an endearing temerity, and a sweet rapport together. Theirs is a shy romance in a movie that is as brazen, yet as irresistible, as a carnival barker.

LAWRENCE O’TOOLE