DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN - Get Into This Groove
Desperately Seeking Susan is a New Wave time capsule fueled by the performances of Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.
Desperately Seeking Susan
Release Date: March 29th, 1985
Date of My First Viewing: November 4th, 2019
“You’re not listening!”
Lack of communication and a hesitance to take a moment and listen drives and fuels a chunk of the plot of Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 film from director Susan Seidelman that stars Rosanna Arquette and served as the first major film role for Madonna. Characters not listening and not communicating complicate things a great deal when the other chunk of the plot deals with identity, assumed and mistaken. This creates a jumbled mess for the main characters, a jumbled mess presented in a wonderfully New Wave-esque aesthetic of mid-1980’s New York City.
I will try to simplify the plot for those who have not watched Desperately Seeking Susan. The film revolves around Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), a bored and unhappy housewife living across the river in New Jersey. Her husband Gary, a hot-tub salesman, (Mark Blum) is self-absorbed and has no idea about Roberta’s unhappiness. Roberta tries to get a little excitement by following the relationship of Susan (Madonna) and Jim (Robert Joy), who communicate with each other via the personal ads.
Roberta goes to Battery Park to watch the two lovers reunite and then follows Susan into New York City. This is where Roberta purchases a jacket that Susan trades-in and just so happens to contain ancient Egyptian ear-rings stolen by one of Susan’s recent trysts. It also contains the key to Susan’s locker at the Port Authority, which Roberta opens and finds Susan’s clothes.
After finding the key, Roberta posts a “Desperately Seeking Susan” ad to return the key. It turns out that Nolan (Will Patton), a mobster connected with the stolen earrings, sees the ad and sees Roberta wearing Susan’s jacket. He harasses her to the point where Roberta falls, hits her head, and loses her memory. She is saved by Dez (Aidan Quinn), a friend of Jim who was asked to check on things after Jim saw the “Desperately Seeking Susan” ad that he did not place.
You got all that? That’s basically the set-up and first act of Desperately Seeking Susan. The film then progresses as a story of Robert assuming the identity of Susan while Susan tries to reclaim her key and possessions. You also have the budding relationship between Dez and Roberta, Gary’s attempts at finding and understanding his wife, and the whole stolen Egyptian earring plot. They, of course, all come together at the end because of course they do.
Now you might think my tone is highly critical of the film, but I don’t want you to be mistaken. There were lots of things I liked about Desperately Seeking Susan. I just didn’t realize the plot involved a lot of mistaken identity and characters not taking the time to logically think about a situation, thus further complicating everything.
My experience with the film is catching, maybe, a few minutes of it on VH1 MANY years ago. Besides that, it is also the source of my favorite Madonna song and the one I think is her absolute best. I’m, of course, talking about the gem that is Into the Groove, a banger that will be a banger until the end of time and beyond. I decided to give the film my full attention on a lazy Monday afternoon after I had gotten a flu-shot. That’s a pretty good reason, isn’t it?
What I liked about Desperately Seeking Susan, beyond hearing Into the Groove in its natural cinematic state, is watching how Rosanna Arquette carries the film with a pretty top-notch performance. She opens the film, right out of the gate, by presenting Roberta as bored and unfulfilled. Her excitement level perks up, though, when she gets to follow Susan and then assume her life. A lot of wrong choices could have been made with Roberta operating under the effects of amnesia, but Arquette keeps her grounded. Arquette also slowly but surely portrays the character as someone that gets liberated and given a second chance at things.
Roberta longs for the “mysterious” and gritty world of New York City, somewhere that is totally foreign, dangerous, and totally intriguing compared to her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Susan Seidelman does a great job at presenting how different these two worlds are, visually, economically, and socially.
The river is more than a geographic barrier for Roberta. It’s the barrier into an entirely different world, a world that she comes to embrace and accept. Roberta might be a lost girl in a strange world, but she doesn’t run away in fear. She finds acceptance and purpose in this version of Wonderland.
When Roberta finally does confront her husband, who just brushes off Roberta’s concerns and, again, doesn’t listen, you get a sense of pride in Roberta’s final actions and words.
One can’t talk about Desperately Seeking Susan without mentioning the performance of Madonna as Susan. In her first major role, Madonna exudes confidence and swagger with a role that probably wasn’t too far from her actual life in the early 1980’s. It’s hard to see anyone else in the role of Susan, even though many other actresses were up for the part. Madonna brings a sense of realism and believability to Susan’s somewhat sketchy and care-free existence.
Watching her parts in the film coupled with her wardrobe was like examining the contents of a wonderfully hip time capsule. I honestly thought she would have had more screen time, but she makes an impact anytime she’s on camera during the film. This film was being produced during the early part of Like a Virgin’s impact, but you can tell Madonna knew she was going to be one of the biggest stars in the world even then.
Other than the plot getting a bit convoluted and characters not doing simple things to try and fix situations, I rather enjoyed Desperately Seeking Susan. It’s not the best film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it gives audiences a great performance from Rosanna Arquette, a look into the star Madonna was going to become along with presenting her best song, and a brilliant New Wave aesthetic. You really can’t go wrong with that combination.