A Wild Journey to Friendship: Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

This post is part of the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon, hosted by ME at Moon in Gemini. Read the rest of the friendly posts in this event HERE!

When I first chose Desperately Seeking Susan for this blogathon, I forgot to consider one important fact about the movie:

The two “friends” in the movie don’t actually meet until about five minutes before it ends.

They are, in fact, complete strangers, and one of them even only knows the other as “Stranger” at first.

But I decided to stay with my choice because this is a movie about the journey TO friendship between two women who seem the total opposite of each other—and at certain points of the movie BECOME each other.

Are you following me?

Hang on. I’ll get to what I mean in a minute.

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Desperately Seeking Susan is an independent feature made during the New Wave of independent films of the 1980s that brought forth filmmakers such as Susan Seidelman (the director of this film), Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, among others. In fact, the movie is peppered with cameo appearances by an array of actors from the 1980s New York indie scene including John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, John Lurie, Anne Carlisle, Giancarlo Esposito, Rockets Redglare, Annie Golden, and Richard Edson.

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The plot is—complicated. Basically, it’s about a bored New Jersey housewife named Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) who reads personal ads as a distraction from her staid life. She becomes so intrigued by a group of ads that begin with “Desperately Seeking Susan” she decides to go to New York City and see what happens when the two people meet. There she sees Jimmy (Robert Joy) meet Susan (Madonna). After Jimmy leaves, she follows Susan around until they end up at a downtown punk boutique. Susan trades her unique leather jacket with a pyramid on the back for a pair of shoes. Roberta buys the jacket.

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When she gets home, she finds a locker key in the jacket. Realizing Susan probably needs the key, she writes a personal ad titled “Desperately Seeking Susan” about the key and signs it “Stranger.”

By this time Susan realizes she might be in some trouble because a mobster she spent time with in Atlantic City was thrown out a window the same day she left him. Unbeknownst to her or Roberta, his partner and murderer Nolan (Will Patton) is following the ads, too, in a bid to get back some priceless earrings that were stolen in a museum heist. Susan lifted them when she left her lover’s hotel room without realizing their value.

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Jimmy, worried about Susan, asks his friend Dez (Aidan Quinn) to meet Susan to make sure she’s O.K. Just as Roberta and Susan are about to meet Nolan begins harassing Roberta because he recognizes the jacket and assumes she’s Susan. During a chase, Roberta falls and knocks her head to the ground. Susan can’t intervene because she is arrested for not paying her cab fare.

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When Dez arrives, he assumes Roberta is Susan. Because of the knock on the head, Roberta has a temporary memory loss and can’t remember who she is or why she is there. After Dez takes her downtown to his place, Roberta tries to piece together who she is. Instead, she starts to embody Susan’s life.

Roberta’s husband Gary (Mark Blum) is alarmed when she doesn’t return home, so he traces the store where she got the jacket. There he finds a note from Susan, who left it in a bid to find her key. Tracking down Susan, he takes her home to New Jersey—where she spends some time living in Roberta’s house and in some of her clothes.

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Like I said, this is a very convoluted plot—the priceless earrings plot point is mostly a McGuffin designed to put both women in danger. The story is really about the circuitous journey to friendship between Roberta and Susan, a very unlikely pairing. Roberta’s journey away from her ho-hum, predictable life becomes one of living on the edge, as she gains a job at a magic club assisting a magician, is picked up by police when she’s mistaken for a prostitute, and begins a romance with Dez, who still believes she’s Susan. At the same time, Susan begins enjoying the perks of suburban life, though she never quite becomes Roberta.

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Susan is a wonderful example of the trickster archetype. It’s that part of her that attracts everyone—Jimmy, Roberta’s husband Gary, Dez (because he believes Roberta is Susan) and Roberta, who is tired of always doing the safe and the expected. The movie certainly contributed to Madonna’s rise to mega stardom. Her acting career never fulfilled its initial promise (probably because she was playing a variation of herself in Desperately Seeking Susan) but she’s still engaging here nonetheless.

The movie has not lost any of its charm. This is still a gratifying journey of a woman finding her true self–as well as unexpected friendship–while travelling through a magical kingdom known as Downtown New York.

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