*** (A must-see)

Directed by Susan Seidelman

Written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank

With Ann Magnuson, John Malkovich, Ben Masters, Laurie Metcalf, and Polly Bergen.

Can a liberated businesswoman with an aching heart find a warmhearted, loving male in this modern world? Mmmmm, could be, according to Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right, the latest social satire from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan. Like her last film, Seidelman’s latest is a mostly cheerful romp through contemporary sexual mores and fantasies. Her comedy is much broader than before, and the links to everyday reality perhaps a bit more tenuous–this is a movie about an android–but she maintains the sharpest eye for the surging lines in the battle between male and female. What makes Seidelman different from most other recorders of sexual military history, however, is that with her, the women are winning.

Ann Magnuson stars as Frankie Stone, a Miami-based “image consultant” coming to the end of a tumultuous relationship with one of her clients, a desperately hip young congressman, Steve Marcus (Ben Masters). Frankie is one of those contemporary women who seem to embody the contradictions of postfeminist life. Professionally successful and an aggressive manager and boss, she still shows the signs of sexual availability and desire: makeup, high heels, and a smooth-shaved body. She’s not above throwing a guy out of her life, but it takes a fit of jealousy to provoke her to it.

Shorn of her lover and number one business problem, she’s doubly free when she’s approached by the executives of Chemtech, a firm that wants her to mount a public relations campaign for their new product, a robot that’s being prepared for deep-space exploration. Frankie agrees, only to be dumbfounded by the discovery that the robot is a human-appearing android designed in the image of its creator, Dr. Jeff Peters (John Malkovich, in a dual role). And while Peters is a hostile, rude, antisocial introvert, his invention, Ulysses, is a warm, childlike thing, unburdened by socially determined personality traits, a tabula rasa. It doesn’t take long for the consultant to impress her image of male perfection on the appealing concatenation of circuits, and, to the ultimate consternation of Peters and his bosses, before you know it Ulysses becomes a paradigm of the sensitive, caring New Man.

This pulpy plot, with its sci-fi base, is similar to the amnesia hook that Seidelman used so effectively in Desperately Seeking Susan. However, as before, the plot doesn’t really count for all that much; Seidelman’s detours around, over, under, and beyond the demands of the story are really what make this movie. For one thing, Making Mr. Right is a very crowded film by today’s standards. Frankie can’t turn around without bumping into someone. She’s visited by her old friend Trish (Glenne Headly), who has run out on her unfaithful TV-star husband Don (Hart Bochner). Frankie also has to contend with the social demands of her sister Ivy’s (Susan Berman) wedding to a Cuban waiter, a circumstance that causes her middle-class mother (Polly Bergen) no end of exasperation. Not only that, there’s her colleague Suzy (Polly Draper), who seems to be after both Frankie’s old flame and his account.

This kind of adornment is at the heart of Seidelman’s style; all three of her films (Smithereens was the first) have easy-to-relate plots, but their unfolding almost defies description. And as she decorates her plots, so does Seidelman decorate her characters. Seidelman loves to change their clothes, and each change of wardrobe indicates a deeper, interior change. When Frankie takes Ulysses out into the world–or, rather, when he escapes into it in the back of her car–he ends up tossing aside his blue coveralls for an ill-fitting, comically enchanting tuxedo. And we know that Seidelman must be fond of Frankie just from how she appears in the opening of the movie in a bright red dress driving a bright red car and putting on bright red lipstick.

However, it would be a mistake to think that all the surface dressing is pure illusion. For example, although the film’s design is a virtual cacophony of styles–from 50s futuristic fantasies to Miami pastel pop to everyday naturalism–it is the material manifestation of Seidelman’s theme. And that is that we’re mostly a bunch of lonely people who have been overwhelmed by a flood of postwar culture, every scrap of which seems to hold some behavioral command. And it’s damn near impossible to ease out from under that load.

Actually, it probably is impossible, Seidelman seems to be saying, since her formulation of the problem is more convincing than her resolution of it. The large cast of characters in Making Mr. Right is mostly distinguished by its women; the men seem a little schematic. The cold Jeff, the careerist Steve, the cavemanlike Don, all seem to represent different polemical points on the male inferiority axis. It’s not so much that they are insulting caricatures–even as flawed figures they are more human by half than most modern movie characters–as that they don’t have the full-fledged freedom (to succeed, to fail, to love, or be loved) that the women in the film do. The women fan out in all directions; this sisterhood is powerful because it is so diffuse and disorganized that anything can happen. But the only hope for men seems to be an empty-headed android. It’s good, pungent satire, the kind that should unsettle men watching the movie, but it doesn’t quite jibe with the generosity with which Seidelman treats her women.

Or her minor male characters. Ivy’s wedding serves as one of those familiar “big” comic scenes movies don’t like to do without these days. There’s a fight, people falling into a swimming pool, etc. But Seidelman treats this hackneyed scene with unusual rhythms. Rather than start off with a slow buildup that will climax with the first splash, she plows into the party eagerly, like an enthusiastic gate-crasher. Again, it’s details that seem to interest her more than the main thrust. She dawdles over a conga line, she sneaks a look at the tacky spangled musical notes on the back of the bandleader’s jacket, she giggles over the uncomfortable meeting of uptight Anglo and celebratory Cuban in-laws. But there’s no hint of snideness here, and the clue to her feelings lies in the length of her shots. She doesn’t hit the bad-taste bull’s-eye and move on; she keeps looking at these people because she likes them and envies the good time they’re having. Their effusive vulgarity is the mark of their cheerful high spirits, and these moments of gauche revelry are the most liberating moments we have, moments when we can drop our pretenses and just have a good time. So it’s not a surprise that the party scene, with its demands for honesty, precipitates the film’s climax.

Seidelman’s double-pronged denouement isn’t totally successful, in that her sci-fi plot and somewhat reductive male characterizations come back to haunt her at the moment when Frankie is supposed to be at her happiest. However, there’s a strange, richly melancholy counterpoint to the ending that clicks perfectly, and underscores the basic humanity at work in Seidelman’s envisioned new order. She’s abetted in this poignancy by Malkovich, who really, for the first time in a movie, gets to strut his far-ranging stuff. Since he emerged from Steppenwolf, he’s been locked into solemn, dramatic film roles. Here he shows much hitherto hidden talent as a physical comedian; probably the funniest scene in the film is a sequence showing the newly manufactured Ulysses learning to walk and draw. Conversely, while Magnuson’s mostly known for her work as a comic performance artist, she has the more serious role; her character’s frustrated desires are the engine that drives the whole movie. But her undeniable comic edge and Malkovich’s essential seriousness are what give their roles their sense of immediacy.

The whole cast deserves a lot of praise, even down to the smallest parts. Laurie Metcalf is hilarious as a Chemtech employee with a crush on Peters, who unfortunately can’t tell the difference between scientist and robot. Harsh Nayyar cuts a memorable figure as Chemtech’s Indian president, Dr. Ramdas. And so on down the list.

With one eye on contemporary life, and another on life the way she’d like to see it, Susan Seidelman is in the mode of a classic satirist. But she’s an amiable one, who kind of strolls along, dropping entertaining observations by the wayside. Like Cupid, her arrows are sharp, but they don’t hurt much.