Mistaken identity and longing for some excitement is nothing new. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. Especially when you throw in the drama of stolen antiquities and Madonna at her very coolest and very best.
Director Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” came out in 1985 right on the wave of that first Madonna tsunami, and also stars Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn. The cast of the film is stellar, but because of the pop star’s explosion onto the scene, it may as well have been called the Madonna Movie.
Arquette’s Roberta Glass lives a boring life as a New Jersey housewife, not even allowed to choose the haircut she wants. But she gets a touch of vicarious excitement by reading the personals. There she follows the goings-on of Madonna’s Susan, finally seeing her as she tags along to spy on a date at Battery Park between Susan and her man, Jim (Robert Joy). It’s a short one, as Jim has a gig with the band. But Jim grows alarmed to find out that one of Susan’s flings (punk legend Richard Hell, in a nonspeaking cameo) has been thrown from a hotel window. Susan nonchalantly sums it up: “He was breathing when I left.”
Roberta follows Susan into a shop, and observes her trying to shoplift a pair of rhinestone boots (the shopkeep stops her, but accepts Susan’s unique pyramid jacket as a trade). Roberta, fascinated by Susan, buys the jacket and, after finding a key to the port authority locker where Susan’s stuff is held, runs an ad to arrange a meeting and key switch. Jim sees the ad and grows alarmed (Who else would be seeking Susan?) and Jim sends his best friend Dez (Quinn) to make sure nothing goes haywire.
There, at Battery Park, the “greaseball” Wayne Nolan (Will Patton) who is looking for the ancient Egyptian earrings Susan took from his partner in crime (if she likes something she tends to take it), sees Roberta in Susan’s pyramid jacket and hassles her for the stolen jewelry.
Roberta struggles to get away, falls, and bumps her head, waking up with Nolan gone, her purse lost in the water, and Dez helping “Susan.” With a clean slate and the distinctive jacket, she becomes Susan. And Susan, having seen her with Nolan, thinks Roberta is partners with him.
Roberta has no memory and no baggage from her housewife days married to the bland Gary Glass, the “spa king of New Jersey,” played by Mark Blum. And in that jacket and with Dez’s presumption, she must be Susan. Dez takes her in for a couple days, and from there Roberta goes through the clues in the suitcase she found in Susan’s locker to try and find out who she is, in the process finding out more about herself, not to mention finding out that Susan has some interesting history. That jacket gets her kicked out of diners and more.
Through a lot of mishaps and twists, the truth comes to light. Not only does Roberta regain her memory and her identity, but her time as Susan leads her to find out more about herself: She may have been living in vanilla comfort as a housewife, but it certainly wasn’t bliss.
Along the way Susan meets up with Gary Glass and it’s fun to see her living this devil-may-care life, lounging around in garters, making a mess of the Glass house, reading Roberta’s diary (“It’s got to be a cover. Nobody’s life could be this boring!”), snacking on cheesy puffs and stealing one of Roberta’s jackets (“She owes me a coat.”)
Soon enough the mystery of the earrings gets solved and all ends happily. But it’s the fun food for thought that the movie provides, the awesome performances (Madonna, Blum, Laurie Metcalfe, Steven Wright, Quinn, Arquette and more), and this sparkling, funky, cluttered and bizarre world in New York. Everything there is seedy, glittering, gritty and alive, compared to the doctor’s office wallpaper sterility of her Fort Lee, N.J., home.
It’s a trip down the rabbit hole and after drinking in some truth and adventure sans the baggage of her obligations as a housewife, Roberta comes out all the wiser, with new friends, new realizations and new love.
Could there be a reason behind naming her Glass? As she falls away from her everyday concerns and dreary reality, under the guise of Susan’s white rabbit she transforms and comes out with a clearer vision of herself. Isn’t that something we’re all seeking?
Five places to buy “Desperately Seeking Susan”: