Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Having directed the pilot for Sex in the City and credited with helping to launch Madonna
with Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman has made a fairly permanent mark in the
movies. Smithereens is her first feature, a hit-the-big-time venture straight out of NYU
film school that put her on the map. Her seriocomic portrait of an ambitious female lost in the
jungle of the New York music and art scene has a good look for its locations and a nice feel for
characters. It's also honest enough to present life on the streets as an inevitable downer.
No matter how much we root for the spunky, ethics-challenged heroine, someone needs to tell
her that she's only one or two steps from the gutter. It's a good movie.
Four months behind on her rent, the energetic but misdirected Wren (Susan Berman)
works in a copy center while trying to promote herself into a glitzy music career by latching onto
a talented boyfriend. Not above abusing acquaintainces, lying and stealing, she throws herself at
a jaded musical burnout, Eric (Richard Hell) while callously using another boy, Paul (Brad Rinn).
Paul has driven from Montana and lives in his van, and Wren treats him terribly until she uses up
her options and needs a place to sleep. Paul tries to get her to commit to something more than her
flaky self-interest, but Wren insists on trying to con herself into the graces of people
like Eric who are more experienced users than she.
Smithereens gets right to the heart of the 'creative youth culture' of the late 70s / early
80s: Just as in every endeavour with potentially glamorous rewards, ambitious hangers-on outnumber
the talented core by fifty to one. Jersey Girl Wren has migrated to Manhattan to crash into the
scene and come out with a new identity or function for herself, her ultimate goal being to end up
floating in a pool in California, sipping drinks and being famous. She has a long way to go. Having
burned her bridges with her disapproving family and lost her rented room, Wren is forced to drift
between whoever can put her up for the night.
That's not an easy task but Wren is determined to make it work no matter what the strain to her
friends. She's a determined self-promoter, even if plastering xeroxes of herself all over town
(distant echoes of
It Should Happen to You, there)
accomplishes little except petty vandalism. Values-challenged but still recognizably vulnerable,
Wren is willing to sleep with one boy while deceiving another. She breaks the heart of Paul, the
Montana, feeling a pull of attraction to him only when her other prospects look bleak. But
the minute that the arrogant Eric acts interested, she ditches Paul like excess baggage.
The Smithereens script (co written by Ron Nyswaner of Philadelphia) puts this lifestyle
into perspective without becoming pretentious. Wren is one of a million selfish self-promoters looking
for an angle but expecting to advance on somebody else's dime. She preys on those less cool than
herself, yet is easily victimized by people higher on the scale of coolness. She's so isolated
from ordinary human connections that she's willing to commit armed robbery for Eric. "Smithereens"
appears to be the title of an album promoted by Eric, but Wren also uses the word when referring to
a dream she had about the world exploding into tiny fragments. The people living on the remaining
bits don't realize what's missing. Wren's aggressive, me-against-everybody alienation effects more
or less the same result as she systematically cuts herself off from living in the civilized world
with other people. It's a great theme; Smithereens is almost like Conrad's Outcast of the
Director Susan Seidelman was apparently inspired by Nights of Cabiria for her freewheeling
female protagonist. Wren has a certain sassy resilience but lacks the dignity of Fellini's
idealized streetwalker. When we last see her, Wren looks ready to make some even worse decisions
I didn't care much for the director's Madonna movie (although Rosanna Arquette was cute) and both
Making Mr. Right and She-Devil leaned to the dismal side of the blotter. But
Smithereens is reasonably fresh, especially in its casting of lively Susan Berman. Seidelman
describes her has having a pixie twinkle in her eyes, and Berman indeed gives off a kind of Shirley
MacLaine glow from time to time. She also excels at being loud, abrasive, blunt and
pigheaded when needed. She's terrific.
Blue Underground's DVD of Smithereens takes a gritty film shot on 16mm and makes it look
better than the original theatrical prints did. Color and grain are under control and the
variable cinematography (hard to keep things in focus at night through those dark viewfinders, no?)
has an appropriate rough quality. The sound is exceptionally good, and if the film was post-synched,
they did a really good job. The music score utilizes some good tunes, including several by the notable
group The Feelies.
Director Susan Seidelman provides a breezy commentary that outlines the genesis of the movie as an
outgrowth of student work. The movie was essentially self-produced and Seidelman's tenacity must
have been Herculean to keep things going when her actress broke her ankle in the very first week of
shooting. That break turned out to be a blessing because it allowed her to recast roles that
weren't working and to rethink the script in a completely new direction. The original story was
reportedly more of a Holly Golightly tale where Wren eventually connected with a rich Prince
The delightful Susan Berman and the thoughtful Richard Hell make a nice interview couple for a Blue
Underground - produced docu. Both seem like extremely nice people and Hell volunteers a
truthful account of himself during filming - he was almost as burned out and hollow as his character
was supposed to be. Seidelman forced him to sleep at her apartment to guarantee that
he'd show up on the set.
A trailer and stills gallery round out Blue Underground's superior package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: commentary by the director; interview-doc with Susan Berman and Richard Hell,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 29, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson