[Ed. note: due to a Netflix goof, this week's TWMOAT nominee, Margot at the Wedding, will be next week's TWMOAT nominee. And what was supposed to be next week's nominee will be discussed this week. Important, startling information! But just in case there was any confusion.]
Madonna in 2009 looks like a leather sack stretched tightly over a homemade sculpture of a Velociraptor made out of broken sticks, chicken bones, and Terminator parts. But this was not always the case! She used to be a human woman, with soft skin and actual hair and a face and everything. Those days, of course, are long gone, drifting into the thick smoky haze rising off of the clay pot where she mixed the bat wings and the blood of the innocent in her cursed spell of everlasting life. But you can still catch a glimpse of her, the Madonna that was, in movies like Desperately Seeking Susan. So young! So bad at acting! So what! It’s just nice to be reminded that there was a human being under the exoskeleton of desperation and Skynet Patented Real-Flesh Organic Compound. Even monsters used to have dreams!
Desperately Seeking Susan is about (bear with me, this is going to be kind of difficult to explain!) a sassy punk rock chick named Susan (Madonna) who communicates with her would-be-rockstar boyfriend via the Personals Section in the newspaper. Whenever the boyfriend wants to see her, he leaves a “Desperately Seeking Susan” ad in the paper with a time and place to meet. One day, she sees a new ad, so she leaves her New Jersey boyfriend, with whom she has been having a fling, passed out on the bed. But first she steals everything from the room, including a beautiful pair (not a beautiful pair) of earrings! She puts on her signature pyramid coat and goes to meet her boyfriend in New York City! Meanwhile, Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) is a desperate New Jersey housewife who is so bored with her hot tub salesman husband. What she is not bored with is being unhealthily obsessed with the Desperately Seeking Susan cross-country personal ad romance (more on this later). She decides to go to the latest rendezvous and spy on the two lovers, because that is a thing that housewives do. Susan, meanwhile, has put all of her belongings in a locker at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This is very important, I repeat: Susan has put all of her belongings in a locker at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Susan and her boyfriend meet up at Battery Park while Roberta spies on them, and then the boyfriend immediately has to go, he just wanted to go through a really arcane and borderline-impossible system of communication in order to tell her hello? So Roberta follows Susan. Sure. She follows her into a used clothing store on St. Mark’s Place where Susan trades her trademark stupid pyramid jacket that is so stupid but is obviously such an important plot device for a pair of boots. Then Roberta buys her jacket! Because she’s kind of a creep!
We are about 15 minutes into the movie.
Back at home, Roberta changes her hair to look more like Susan’s and wears the jacket and her husband would be creeped out, because this is creepy, but he’s obviously having an affair and doesn’t like his wife anyway. Then Roberta finds the Port Authority Bus Terminal locker key in the jacket pocket. Oh no! All of Susan’s stuff! MEANWHILE, Susan’s New Jersey boyfriend who she robbed and left has been murdered. Something to do with stealing a bunch of ancient Egyptian artifacts. For example, ANCIENT EGYPTIAN EARRINGS? Roberta leaves a Desperately Seeking Susan ad in the personals section of the paper, saying that a stranger wants to meet her to give her back her key. That’s really creepy if you think about it! Susan goes to meet her but gets arrested by the police because she is too punk. The bad guy also saw the ad, and he shows up and sees Roberta and thinks she is Susan and tries to attack her to get back the important earrings. But also Susan’s boyfriend saw the ad and got jealous/worried, so he called his friend Dez and asked Dez to go check up on her. So Dez rides up and scares the bad guy off, but in doing so Roberta also gets scared and she BUMPS HER HEAD ON A LIGHTPOLE AND NOW SHE HAS AMNESIA AND ALSO SHE DROPS HER PURSE INTO THE RIVER. Oh boy. Dez has never met Susan, and all Roberta has for identification is a locker key for a locker containing all of Susan’s stuff. So now Roberta thinks she is Susan. So now everyone is trying to find Susan but also kind of trying to find Roberta who thinks she is Susan but doesn’t remember anything. And Dez and Susan/Roberta begin to fall in love, duh. Wacky wacky wacky. Blah blah blah. Eventually the bad guy attacks Susan/Roberta again, but he is scared away by the police and she falls and BUMPS HER HEAD AGAIN, and now she remembers who she is, but she realizes that she was unhappy in her life. Blah blah blah. Wacky wacky wacky. Everything culminates in a New York nightclub during a magic show (you know those MAGIC SHOWS that were so popular in the New York nightlife scene of the ’80s) and Roberta leaves her cheating husband, and Dez finds out that Roberta isn’t Susan, and Susan reunites with her boyfriend, and the bad guy is hit in the head with a whiskey bottle. Roberta and Dez are going out boyfriend and divorced girlfriend now, and the girls return the NEFERTITI EARRINGS (seriously, that is what they are called) and are heroes (AND FRIENDS!).
This movie has one of the most complicated and convoluted plots while still feeling like it was written by someone with a third-grade reading comprehension that I have ever seen.
Obviously, when you make a movie this reliant on plot twists there’s not a lot of room for actual character development or human emotion. Which is probably fine, because none of the actors are very good in it! Madonna: stiiiiinks. Rosanna Arquette: whatever. Aidan Quinn: the Robert Pattinson of his time. I was surprised to find that Steven Wright was in this. He does not have a very big role, but he is memorable! I read somewhere (in my dreams) that Steven Wright’s role in Desperately Seeking Susan paved the way for Todd Barry to be in The Wrestler.
My absolute favorite thing about this movie, of course, is its depiction of a world in which everyone immediately turns to the personals in the newspaper, and reads every single ad. Every day. You could easily see someone trying to remake this today using Craigslist and it would be amazing and I would see it in the movie theater. So stupid. What a stupid, stupid plot device. But it makes me laugh. At one point, Roberta is sitting in a New York park, forelorn and unsure of what to do. Which is when she spots a homeless man sleeping under a newspaper, AND SHE GOES AND READS THE PERSONAL ADS OFF OF A HOMELESS MAN’S FACE. Good thing she does, too, because there is a very important personal ad on there.
This movie also has a lot of great quotes in it, like:
“Nobody named Blackie is sincere.”
“You bought a used coat? What are we, poor?”
“I believe some of that stuff is mine. Like the answering machine.”
And even more of just being so ’80s all over the place it’s ridiculous.
These fun guys know what I’m talking about!
And that is the problem, from our point-of-view, or the blessing, from the movie’s-point-of-view, with trying to critically deal with a Desperately Seeking Susan. As a kitschy time capsule for a world that no longer exists (pre-9/11), it’s simply too silly and mildly-fun-to-watch to be genuinely offensive or insulting the way of, say, an Elizabethtown, or a Dan in Real Life. It’s like a holiday, celebrate! Get it? You get it.