Times Staff Writer

Director Susan Seidelman sure has it in for New Jersey.

So eager was the heroine of Seidelman’s first feature, the scrappy, scruffy “Smithereens,” to escape her soul-withering blue-collar Jersey existence that she deluded herself into believing she could make it as a new-wave music star in Manhattan.

And now, in her endearingly hilarious “Desperately Seeking Susan” (citywide Friday), Seidelman finds life no better at the upper end of the middle class in the Garden State. After four years of marriage to a hotshot Fort Lee hot-tub salesman (Mark Blum), his bright, diminutive wife (Rosanna Arquette) seeks respite from boredom by living vicariously through the personals columns. She is especially captivated by one frequent ad, which is always headed “Desperately Seeking Susan,” gives a time and place for a meeting and is signed “Jim.”

Whatever must this Susan and her life be like? Arquette finally just has to know, and heads for Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, where Susan and Jim are to meet next. Arquette has just plunged into more adventure than she could ever conjure up in her wildest fantasies.

Susan (rock star Madonna, in a sensational debut) turns out to be an uninhibited, free-wheeling, lush-looking beauty in gaudy thrift-shop finery who lives by her wits; Jim (Robert Joy), her skinny sometime lover who understands her drifting ways, has a rock band. All it takes is a conk on her head and Arquette wakes up thinking that she may be Susan, who, alas, is being pursued by a baleful, hunched-over blond guy (Will Patton) for treasure she didn’t even know she had.

Arquette’s new life takes her into the streets, throws her into the arms of Joy’s amiable projectionist pal (Aidan Quinn) and finds her working happily as a magician’s assistant in the tackiest nightclub on Lower Broadway.


Leora Barish’s blithe, wryly satirical script liberates Seidelman, allowing her to combine the street-wise grit of “Smithereens” with a glorious, cockamamie sense of humor. “Desperately Seeking Susan” couldn’t be more right now, and in being so--and being itself--it’s actually lots closer to the spirit of hallowed ‘30s screwball comedies than films nakedly striving to emulate them. Everything about it is fresh: its wit, its people, its sound (a knockout rock score by Thomas Newman) and its look (cinematographer Edward Lachman’s exterior images are so clear that they seem to have been shot just after a cleansing rain).

Barish’s outrageous, piled-on plotting yields a steady flow of comic situations and characters. There’s Blum’s wonderfully inane TV commercial--he’s pulled into one of his tubs by a bevy of giggling, jiggling bathing beauties. There’s his deliciously busybody, man-chasing sister (Laurie Metcalf, a terrific comedienne), who quotes pop-psychology jargon and orders rum and diet cola. And production designer Santo Loquasto has come up with such gorgeous kitsch settings and costumes that the film itself becomes a running visual gag.

To watch “Desperately Seeking Susan” twice is to realize how skillfully Rosanna Arquette (the charmer of John Sayles’ “Baby It’s You”) carries the film. The idea is not to take her daydreamer’s temporary amnesia too seriously but to go with her sly comic takes as she registers a pleased confusion at her riddled memory, suggesting that instinct is telling her she’s better off forgetting her past as long as she can. In perfect contrast to Arquette’s initially timid housewife, Madonna exudes confidence, nonchalantly regarding everything life has to offer as hers for the taking. She’s tough without being hard, with a clear-eyed compassion that’s immensely appealing.

Wiry, intense Aidan Quinn, playing a misunderstood, wrong-side-of-the-tracks youth, was better than his material in his debut film “Reckless”; here, he comes into his own as a savvy yet caring loner. Quinn suggests that he has lots in reserve, always an essential quality in actors who break through in a big way.

There’s a spirit of generosity working here that lets us like even as dense a guy as Arquette’s husband, so beautifully played by Blum. Indeed, Seidelman and Barish have affection for all their people, including those in smaller roles impeccably played by well-known denizens of New York’s underground scene. “Desperately Seeking Susan” (accurately rated PG-13) is a lark, an exhilarating celebration of people who have the good sense to be in touch with themselves and with each other.