Susan Seidelman, you should remember, is the young director who first came to attention three years ago with ”Smithereens,” a wonderfully funny, independently financed, $80,000 first-feature about a pushy, punkish young woman named Wren and her adventures in the Day-Glo lower-depths of the East Village and blocks west. It’s now apparent that ”Smithereens” was not a fluke.
With ”Desperately Seeking Susan,” her second feature, which opens today at Loews Paramount and other theaters, Miss Seidelman successfully takes the long, potentially dangerous leap from the ranks of the promising independents to mainstream American movie-making, her integrity, her talent and her comic idiosyncracies intact.
”Desperately Seeking Susan,” based on a good screenplay by a new writer named Leora Barish, is a terrifically genial New York City farce in which the lives of two very different young women become tangled in an Orlon web of lies, half-truths and crosspurposes.
It’s a fable that involves, among other unlikely things and people, a pair of stolen earrings that once belonged to Nefertiti; a gangster slain in Atlantic City; an earnest, uptight businessman who sells Jacuzzis and hot tubs, and who stars in his own cheery television commercials; a professional hit man; amnesia and mistaken identity; a soberly commonplace magician, and a handsome young fellow who makes his living as the projectionist at a theater specializing in the B-pictures of yesteryear.
The film’s two charming, very funny stars are Rosanna Arquette, the blond chamelion most recently seen in John Sayles’s ”Baby, It’s You” and in the television adaptation of Norman Mailer’s ”The Executioner’s Song,” and Madonna, one of the hottest personalities in music videos, who here has her first major role in a theatrical film and carries it off with nervy ease, as if to echo the Jerry Lieber-Mike Stoller lament, ”Is That All There Is?”
Miss Arquette’s Roberta is a pampered, Fort Lee, N.J., princess, married to Gary, the Jacuzzi salesman and TV ”star.” Like Ibsen’s Nora, magically transported to a condo- with-pool on the far side of the George Washington Bridge, Roberta gets fed up and leaves home, though, unlike Nora, she really doesn’t mean to bang the door behind her.
What lures the romantically inclined Roberta away from her probably fake fireplace is a series of personal ads she has been following for some months, each headed ”Desperately Seeking Susan,” followed by a message from ”Jim,” who sets up the time and place for their next rendezvous. On impulse one afternoon, Roberta decides to spy on one such rendezvous in Battery Park, where, after a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and a bop on the head, she finds herself with no memory of who she is, though everybody seems to think she’s Susan.
Madonna plays the real Susan, a slightly more focused variation on the eccentric, free-living heroine of Miss Seidelman’s ”Smithereens,” which is not to say that Susan is more conventional, only that the film surrounding her is. Susan is one of society’s most winning bandits, but her crimes are essentially victimless. She has no pad of her own and sleeps around for convenience as much as for pleasure. Dressed in her miniskirts, rhinestone boots, and enough New Wave junk jewelry to start her own thrift shop, Susan looks like a piece of performance art on the hoof.
Through a succession of perfectly implausible coincidences – this is, after all, a farce – Roberta, the protected princess from Fort Lee, starts living a reasonable facsimile of Susan’s wayward life. She is housed, against his better judgment, by Dez (Aidan Quinn), the projectionist, who is the best friend of Susan’s main man Jim (Robert Joy), and works as the on-stage assistant to the world’s most optimistic, second-rate magician (Peter Maloney) in a Village club that would attract only the seediest of conventioneers.
Susan, aware that the mob might be after her for reasons she never worries about, eventually connects with Roberta’s husband, Gary (Mark Blum), and Gary’s sister, Leslie (Laurie Metcalf), who, her imagination expanded by expose magazines, suspects that Roberta may be either a housewife-prostitute or a housewife- lesbian, and maybe both. Gary, dazzled by Susan’s manners and glittery raiment, takes her back to Fort Lee, which seems as exotic to her as the Village is to Roberta.
It’s no easy thing to keep this kind of farce spinning with seeming effortlessness and, toward the end, ”Desperately Seeking Susan” becomes a little desperate itself. Miss Seidelman and Miss Barish never find that single, explosively funny, climactic confrontation scene in which all of the characters would converge for sudden recognition. The movie ends sweetly, but sort of piecemeal.
Miss Seidelman’s principal talent is for bringing cockeyed characters to life with great good humor and no condescension, and she’s as wicked about life in the new bohemia as in the new suburbia. ”Desperately Seeking Susan” is full of funny, sharply observed details, reflected in Santo Loquasto’s witty production design as well as in all of the dozens of individual performances. The cast is virtually a Players Guide to the variety of performing talent available in New York.
Miss Arquette and Madonna are delights, as is each member of the huge supporting cast, from Mr. Quinn, Mr. Blum, Mr. Joy and Miss Metcalf, through Mr. Maloney and down to those people who appear in split-second cameos, including Anne Carlisle, from ”Liquid Sky,” and John Lurie, the star of ”Stranger Than Paradise,” who is seen here as the silhouette of a musician behind a window shade.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Directed by: Susan Seidelman
Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, Laurie Metcalf, Anna Levine, Will Patton, Anne Carlisle
Screenplay by: Leora Barish
Production Design by: Santo Loquasto
Cinematography by: Edward Lachman
Film Editing by: Andrew Mondshein
Costume Design by: Santo Loquasto
Set Decoration by: George DeTitta Jr.
Art Direction by: Speed Hopkins
Music by: Thomas Newman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some vulgar language and partial nudity..
Distributed by: Orion Pictures
Release Date: March 29, 1985