A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Desperately Seeking Susan is a 1985 film featuring singer Madonna in one of her early non-singing film roles. She plays a boho "free spirit" known by friends as a trouble-maker who freeloads and leaves disaster in her wake. Her alter ego is Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), a bored upper middle-class New Jersey housewife who longs for adventure and finds it following newspaper personal ads that Susan's off-again-on-again boyfriend places in the effort to hook up. It's a slice of 1980s life that illustrates what it was like before cell phones revolutionized personal relations. Adults smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink alcohol. Breasts are seen, as well as a man's behind. Adults kiss and a couple is seen presumably after making love. Language includes "s--t" and "t-ts." A man holds a woman at gunpoint. The police arrest a woman on charges of prostitution. A woman hits an assailant over the head with a bottle.
What's the story?
A frumpy, privileged wife of a successful hot tub installer wanders into the mix of downtown hipsters doing odd jobs to pay rents on their Manhattan tenement walk-ups. Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) lives vicariously through romantic want ads. DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN is the headline on an ad that gives a time, date, and meeting place, a temptation too great for Roberta to pass up. She leaves safe and comfy New Jersey for scary unknowable Manhattan and follows Susan (Madonna in an early non-singing movie role) and the want ad's writer Jim (Robert Joy), a rock-and-roller often traveling with his band. Susan's been in Atlantic City, shacked up with a mobster. Newspaper headlines let her know that shortly after she left him, the guy was whacked. Now she's being tailed by Wayne (Will Patton), a mob thug, because she took a pair of gaudy earrings from her Wise Guy, unaware that they were stolen from an exhibition of ancient artifacts and probably priceless. She stashes her bag, earrings and all, in a bus station locker, and throws the key in her gaudy jacket pocket. A woman of spontaneity, she soon swaps that jacket for a pair of studded boots at a thrift store, leaving the bus station locker key behind. Roberta's tailed her to the thrift shop and buys the jacket. When she gets hit on the head and loses her memory, Dez (Aidan Quinn), a friend of Jim, recognizes the jacket, assumes Roberta is Susan, and takes her in. Her worried hot-tubbing husband Gary (Mark Blum) looks for her in downtown Manhattan after she's mistakenly arrested for prostitution. Dez, still thinking Roberta is Susan, falls for her. It all works out in the end.
Is it any good?
Desperately Seeking Susan is forced, strained, and overly constructed, an artificial comedy that is hugely, seriously, and ferociously unfunny. Young audiences may wonder about assumptions underlying the primary conflicts set out here -- that the young woman who opts for the comfort and boredom of marriage to a successful New Jersey hot tub retailer would, firstly, dress like a 70-year-old, and, secondly, be interested in spying on a cynical yet free-spirited bohemian dressed in hooker-like see-through tops. The role of clothes and their meaning is overplayed and inconsistent. Why does Roberta wearing a magician's assistant extra-long tutu get arrested for prostitution while Susan, dressed in short shorts and midriff-baring lace tops, does not? In this world, you bump your head and you lose your identity, you buy a used jacket and inherit the troubles of the girl who owned it before. Then you bump your head again and come to realizations that you were never authentically you anyway.
The materialistic booming mid-'80s spawned several other movies about upwardly mobile climbing and the anxieties caused by it, and those movies were equally odd, as if the regularity of normal life were at all times just inches away from a nightmare. Rather than celebrate the feminist notion of strong, independent, self-actualized women as per 1980s aspirations, it trivializes those traits, associating Susan's selfishness and rudeness with independence and Roberta's romanticism and lack of identity with self-actualization. Madonna and Arquette can't be blamed for trying to work their way through this terrible script, but its lack of quality may have had something to with the fact that Madonna's movie career didn't immediately take off after this role even as her singing career at the time made her one of the most famous women in the world. Fun fact: The triplets of the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers make an appearance ogling Madonna on a sidewalk.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what Roberta was looking for when she followed Susan. Why do you think she chose an ad that featured the word "desperately" in its headline?
In what ways is this movie dated? Could it be updated? Why or why not?
Who are some other singers who have tried acting? Do you like it when artists try other art forms, or do you think everyone should just stay in his or her own lane?
Our editors recommend
For kids who love the '80s
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
Streaming options powered by JustWatch