A bit of cinematic cotton candy, Desperately Seeking Susan practically begs to be patronized as “so ’80s.” From the fashions, to the attitudes, to the pop music lubrication, to the first screen appearance of a budding star called Madonna, it is practically a time capsule of the moment when the neoliberal counter-revolution blossomed in the sunshine of vapid consumerism.
That makes it sound more serious and negative than it is, but insubstantiality is what makes the film a perfect product (but not representation) of its time. It avoids any hint of seriousness like an STD. A convoluted mistaken identity thriller/farce about New Jersey housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette), footloose hipster Susan (Madonna) and the men in their lives, it is calculatedly frivolous and silly, a self-conscious confection that relies on style to set it apart from the giddy stupidity of the alternatives.
Roberta is fascinated with Susan and follows her around the East Village. When Susan trades her jacket for a pair of boots, Roberta buys it, starts to wear it, then gets hit on the head and develops amnesia. That cheapest of story complications is interwoven with a subplot about some stolen Egyptian jewelry that helps to tie things together. Just summarizing that setup makes my teeth ache given that I normally loathe mistaken identity stories for the fabricated threats thrown at characters trying to prove who they are. Here the dangers are so baldly set up there’s no need to worry because there’s no real menace for anyone. The only reality is contrivance.
For a brief moment in the ’80s, Arquette was supposed to be the next big thing, but her career never took off as expected by show business insiders, who tended to overlook whether the public shared their enthusiasm. The real star of the film is, of course, Madonna, who effectively, if somewhat monotonously milks the post-punk, disreputable operator image she was selling at the time. Exhausting themselves by not acting, the actors (Aidan Quinn as Arquette’s projectionist love object Dez, Mark Blum as her NJ husband and Robert Joy as Susan’s boyfriend Jim) are ciphers struggling to be clichés. Their hollowness may be meant as some kind of feminist statement, but the male characters’ lack of depth probably results from the paper-thin foolishness of the whole enterprise.
True to form, the film’s only depths lie in the rich surfaces created by ace production designer Santo Loquasto (probably best known for his work with Woody Allen). He gives us plenty to look at in even the most vaporous moments. There is one way, however, in which Desperately Seeking Susan is not typical of ’80s commercial filmmaking: it’s actually entertaining in its wispy, evanescent way. It lacks suspense, has a peculiarly relaxed, almost logy pace for farce, and comes close to the revolting smugness that mars so much hip humor. But the people who made it are just smart enough to be able to prove their cleverness.