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Susan entertaining, not perfect

Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, directed by Susan Seidelman. Now showing at the Nickelodeon.

In 1983 I reviewed Susan Seidelman's first feature film, Smithereens, a rambling tale set in the seedy world of the New York punk underground. It follows the adventures of a girl named Wren whose only desire is for fame, even though she has no talent. Made for only $80,000, it was an unpolished work. Nonetheless it was hailed as a feminist breakthrough, and won a Best Debut award at Cannes. Seidelman parleyed her newly gained notoriety into a deal with Orion Pictures to direct a low priority project that had been on their corporate back burner for a while, a script entitled Desperately Seeking Susan.

The title role is filled by Madonna in her much-ballyhooed feature debut. She plays a character similiar to Wren: a professional freeloader whose only goal is to be the center of attraction. She snaps polaroids of herself, as did Wren, and bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend, settling anywhere someone will let her hustle some attention and a place to sleep.

The trouble begins when one of her paramours bounces off a sidewalk from a hotel window, a casualty of the hunt for the fabulous Nefertiti earrings, stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He didn't have them, of course, because Susan had appropriated them -- they look great with alligator jacket and rhinestone boots.

On the other side both of the cultural spectrum and of the Hudson River is Roberta (played by Rosanna Arquette), a suburban JAP housewife leading a frighteningly boring existence in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Roberta is vicariously thrilled by Susan's lifestyle, and soon she is following her around the Lower East Side.

That's when the plot complications arise. One of the bad guys in search of the earrings mistakes Roberta for Susan; their encounter results in a conk on the head for Roberta who in turn slips into Susan's identity. From there the movie turns into a screwball comedy chase involving family and friends of both Susan and Roberta, with the Nefertiti earrings to keep things going.

Despite the hard boiled setting of the movie, Seidelman betrays a relentlessly middle class sensibility. The most cutting and convincing scenes are not those set in the City, but those in Fort Lee. Roberta's husband and the denizens of their split-level environment are, ironically, the more varied and interesting genus compared to the art-punk inhabitants of the clubs and tenements across the river. As to portrayal of the latter, Seidelman can offer little more than dirt and hairdos.

The movie derives its tension from the friction of the two cultures, yet half the director's vision fails to come through. The whole earring/amnesia schtick s a clumsy, clich'e plot device and it forces Arquette, a promising new actress, to stumble through the movie in a dizzy, cotton-headed, undirected performance. The result is a film that is cute and fun in parts, but ironic in the wrong places and ultimately unconvincing.

Of Smithereens, I wrote, "...Seidelman purports to present a mean, gritty view of New York, yet she stops short of total involvement. She pulls the audience back to a safe vantage point every time something really dirty threatens, and thus doesn't really shake up any sensibilities or provide anything but a flat viewing experience." The additional evidence of Desperately Seeking Susan makes it look as though this is due not to any lack of technical resources, but is a congenital fault of Seidelman's vision as a director.

But the film business needs feminist voices, and as Susan is turning out to be a hit, Seidelman will almost certainly be given the latitude she needs to work out the rough spots in her style in later movies.

Steve Huntley->