"Desperately Seeking Susan" was directed by Susan Seidelman and written by Leora Barish, and the two never seem to have been introduced. The movie's constantly at odds with itself -- self-conscious hip beating its head against a timeworn comic structure. It's like taking a trip to the East Village in a hackney carriage.
Gary Glass (Mark Blum), the "Spa King of New Jersey," has made life comfortable for his wife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), but she's bored with suburbia. Finding romance vicariously through the personal ads in a newspaper, she decides to spy on a Battery Park tryst arranged through one, headlined "Desperately Seeking Susan."
Jim (a misused Robert Joy), author of the ad, has been called out of town, so he sends his buddy Dez (Aidan Quinn) to meet Susan (Madonna), a tawdry seductress; Susan doesn't show, Dez thinks Roberta is Susan, and, after she hits her head on a lamppost, Roberta thinks she's Susan, too.
The old amnesia trick!
Barish's script is full of clunky transitions like this; she's written a "zany" farce out of a bygone Hollywood. For Barish, the story is almost incidental, a convenient grid to overlay with gags. Unfortunately, most of the gags are so tired (it's hard to believe anyone is still telling New Jersey and Valium jokes) that the comedy never takes off. And while the script has a classic farce structure, Seidelman hasn't read it that way. She wants to brood on it, on the problems of identity and finding your niche.
A generational divide fissures the middle of "Desperately Seeking Susan" -- it's no accident that the best part of the script is the satire of middle-class suburban life, while the director feels most comfortable with the movie's young outcasts. Blum, a gangly, pleasant-looking actor, remains cheerfully unruffled by the twists and turns of his marriage; when he smiles, his whole face squiggles like a fingerprint. He and Laurie Metcalf (as his sister) establish a nice, combative rapport, zinging each other with an exquisite comic timing that can bring the best out of bad dialogue. They play together with the ease of an old married couple -- but that only makes Arquette seem redundant.
Seidelman (and cinematographer Ed Lachman) have given the movie a hard, deliciously bright sheen, with the glossy pinks and blues of a popsicle. The look fits the movie's "tomorrow's trends" aura; this, says Seidelman, is downtown, this is what it's about. She has a safecracker's acute feel for the mores of this subculture, for the secondhand clothing, the slumming in low culture, and the way aimlessness has become the stuff of style. "Desperately Seeking Susan" is studded with vivid cameos by such cult figures as Richard Edson, Anne Carlisle, Will Patton and comic Steven Wright.
But all the accuracy floats on the surface. The details are right, but the characters aren't grounded in a sense of place. The movie just gives us hipsters playacting (wouldn't it be neat to be a gangster?). There's nothing particularly attractive about this world, and as its hero, Aidan Quinn doesn't make it any more so -- with a face from a Calvin Klein ad and the voice of a drugged-up John Wayne, Quinn is as pretty and emotionally dead as the movie around him. The hip filigree only serves to subvert the unhip script, which in turn subverts the milieu.
Arquette fits so easily into downtown life that there's no movement in Roberta's character; she was born to Bohemia, so her comic difficulties with it just seem superimposed. With plush lips and a soft snout contradicted by drawn, hollow cheeks and the wide eyes of a "Save the Children" poster child, Arquette looks starved and impossibly plenteous at once. She can play sexy or virginal, dumb or smart, but the one thing she can't play is comedy. Batting her eyelashes, cocking her head in double-takes, her face set in a yo-yo's grin, Arquette tries to be a Comedienne in the Judy Holliday mold, but it's simply out of her range.
With her pushed-in, sneering face and thick, concupiscient fleshiness, Madonna is as physically repulsive as she is spiritually barren -- there's a ring of authenticity to her portrait of a trashy manipulator. But if Susan lives by pushing people around, Madonna gives you no sense of why anyone would let her get away with it. There's no authority to her performance of the kind Rebecca De Mornay brought to essentially the same role in "Risky Business."
"Desperately Seeking Susan" resembles "Risky Business" more than a little, from its stylized look and switched-on score to its story. But that only recalls how cleanly plotted that movie was, how surely it hit its marks. This isn't an unintelligent movie, and it's not boring, either. But the good things about it are only there to torture you with how good a movie it could have been. Desperately Seeking Susan, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some nudity, profanity and sexual situations.