[box cover]

Desperately Seeking Susan

MGM Home Video

Starring Starring Rosanna Arquette, Aidan Quin,
and Madonna

Written by Leora Barish
Directed by Susan Seidelman

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In my late teen years — the early dawn of the 1980s — my best friend and I used to joke that some day in the far-off future our children would ask us, "Mommy? Were you punk or were you disco?"

I was punk, more or less. I never shaved my head or had anything pierced, but I listened to Fear, Agent Orange, Dead Kennedys and the hundreds of screeching just-out-of-the-garage bands that played the nightly bills at L.A.'s firetrap headbanger nightspots. I wore all black and hung with the boys 'til daybreak, usually capping the night with a maple bar at Randy's Donuts, sucking down bad coffee under the world-famous giant brown O.

And I hated Madonna. Hated hated hated her. I didn't care if Henry Rollins thought she was cool — from the very first time I saw her writhing on the floor on MTV in her underpants she represented everything I hated about dance music, trashy slut-girls and 80's fashion. I must admit that over the years my antipathy has faded to something closer to ennui, however — combined with a grudging admiration for her marketing savvy and business sense. But my first viewing of Desperately Seeking Susan during it's 1985 release was in spite of Madonna not because of her, and the only thing that kept me plastered to my seat was the hypnotic baby blues of Aidan Quinn.

Fifteen years after it's initial release, Desperately Seeking Susan stands as both a charming little movie and a brilliant artifact of the 1980s. Rosanna Arquette (still looking too young for the role) plays Roberta Glass, a bored New Jersey housewife who becomes obsessed with the exploits of Jim and Susan, a wild-and-crazy couple who leave messages for each other in the personals. In the course of the remarkably complicated plot, Roberta gets bonked on the head, loses her memory, is mistaken for Susan, falls for Aidan's blue eyes and is menaced by a killer looking for stolen Egyptian earrings. Strip away the torn fishnets and the techno-pop soundtrack, and the story is the sort of mistaken identity screwball comedy that would have once starred June Allison or Carole Lombard.

"Gad, did we actually dress like that?" one might wonder upon a fresh viewing of Susan. As someone who once had eggplant-colored hair and dressed exclusively in thrift store finds I can assure you that, for better or worse, we did. But even more than the gallery of wacky fashions, what places this movie solidly in its time is the sheer naive self-centeredness of the film's characters. It is established from the opening credits that Roberta is a Bored Housewife. We see her in that cinematic temple to the jaded domestic goddess, the beauty parlor. Sitting under the dryers, Roberta swoons over the passion of the personal ads to her sister-in-law, Leslie (Laurie Metcalf). Obviously, if she's getting her legs waxed and reading personals, her life must be pretty darned empty.

When next we see Roberta, she's wearing a horrid pink Stepford Wife cocktail dress and serving hors d'oeuvres to guests who have assembled to view her husband's latest commercial. Gary (Mark Blum) is a successful owner of a chain of pool-and-spa stores called Gary's Oasis, and he's portrayed as a bit of a doof.

Back when I was a young 80s hipster myself, I swallowed the premise hook, line and sinker. Dear God — life in the suburbs! Married to a spa salesman! Put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger right now! But you know, with fifteen years perspective under my belt I just don't see what the hell Roberta had to be so whiny about. Gary's not a bad looking guy, he makes great money, and in the one or two scenes they have together, he treats her quite well. When Roberta disappears apr's head bonk, there is a brief obligatory conversation between Gary and Leslie to establish that he's in the midst of an affair — a conversation that seems awkwardly shoehorned in to make it okay that Roberta runs off, has a fling with Aidan Quinn and then doesn't want to come home when Gary finally tracks her down. But other than getting a new hairdo and being bizarrely fixated on personal ads, there's not any real motivation given to establish why Roberta's so darn enervated.

Roberta's suburban existence is a far cry from that of her role model Susan (Madonna), whom we quickly learn is a promiscuous, conscienceless liar who dresses like, well, Madonna. Madonna in the 80s to be precise — a look that was unfortunately copied by legions of teenage girls (much to the delight, no doubt, of teenage boys). It's sort of amazing to look back at Madonna's first film appearance and realize that her job was to play herself — and she was just barely competent at it. But flat line readings aside, Susan is an interesting character in that she's supposed to be such a Bad Girl, but the worst things she does are smoke cigarettes and wear her underwear on the outside of her clothes. She's Britney Spears in Goodwill duds — it's hard to conceive that the world once found her so shocking.

The cast is rounded out with an amazing slate of not-yet-famous faces: Aidan Quinn as Dez — clothing styles may come and go, but Aidan Quinn in a porkpie hat is still my idea of a dream date — Will Patton, Robert Joy, John Turturro, Steven Wright, Ann Magnuson and (in a moment so brief you have to freeze the frame to make sure it's him) Michael Badalucco of TV's The Practice, sticking his head around a corner and saying "Where'd he go?" during the film's climactic chase. And be sure to keep an eye peeled for John Lurie as a saxophone player.

The DVD release offers the original theatrical trailer and an alternate ending that was re-worked after test audiences rightfully gave it a thumbs down.

— Dawn Taylor

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