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On March 29, 1985, Orion unveiled the breezy Desperately Seeking Susan, featuring Madonna’s first starring film role, in limited release. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘Susan’ introduces new genre: New Wave screwball comedy,” is below:
Desperately Seeking Susan could well usher in a whole new subgenre: New Wave screwball comedy. It’s chief — and possibly substantial — box office interest deriving from the acting debut of the pulchritudinous pop siren Madonna, this Orion release takes nearly half its length to find its madcap comic center. But an attractive, energetic young cast and some witty, off-center visual humor make the resultant laughs more than worth the wait.
The movie borrows its title from a set of personal ads that attract the attention of a bored Jersey housewife (Rosanna Arquette) — a frustrated romantic whose kitchen TV screen seems perpetually tuned to repeats of Wuthering Heights. Fed up with the rebuffs of her complacent hot tub-salesman husband, she one day forsakes her domestic chores to seek out the ads’ free-spirited object of affection (Madonna), setting in motion a chain of mistaken-identity mismatches worth of a Shakespearean comedy.
For awhile it’s hard to determine whether screenwriter Leora Barish and director Susan Seidelman intend for their movie’s many eccentricities (which include a blond-haired, beady, blue-eyed assassin on the prowl for a pair of valuable earrings) to be taken seriously or not. This is especially a problem in the early introductory scenes, when the filmmakers’ detail-perfect satire of upper-middle-class mores fails to consistently jibe with the loonier elements.
It’s not until Arquette is suddenly stricken with amnesia that the picture finds its true identity. Jolted into the illusion that she is, in fact, the much-sought-after Susan, Arquette sallies blithely forth into a backstreet world with which she’s hopelessly unfamiliar while the real Susan establishes herself contentedly in Arquette’s well-appointed yuppie digs — settings give a sharp comic bite by both production designer Santo Loquasto and cinematographer Edward Lachman.
Delicious in their sense of the role reversal wish-fulfillment, these latter scenes likewise show off a bright, engaging ensemble of performers. Reckless‘ Aidan Quinn as the befuddled good samaritan who finds his curiosity for Arquette turning to real affection; Mark Blum as her complacent, inconsiderate husband; Laurie Metcalf as her love-starved sister; Robert Joy as Susan’s hyperkinetic musician boyfriend, and Anna Levine as a nearsighted magician’s assistant. Seidelman allows them all to shine; when she brings this motley crew together for the film’s lively nightclub finale, the ensuing chaos recalls one of the great Marx Bros. destruction derbies.
But it’s Arquette who lends the movie its gentle, almost winsome center. Always a pleasure to watch, the lovely Baby, It’s You star is here the perfect ingenue, a delightfully scattered, Hepburn-like gamine whose growing self-reliance wins her both sympathy and respect. It’s a talented actress indeed who can play virtually half her role in a ballerina’s tutu while holding a bird cage and still manage to create an utterly believable character.
As for Madonna, her virgin thespic endeavor is neither more nor less than one might expect from her music videos. Flashing the navel that catapulted her to the top of the pop charts, she comes across as a pint-sized Mae West, cracking wise and looking sultry in a manner that obviously comes quite easy. Hardly a stretch for this self-styled “Material Girl,” perhaps, but, for once at least, she’s got the right material to work with. — Kirk Ellis, originally published on March 25, 1985.
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