Watching this mid-1980s Brat Pack showcase a week after re-visiting The Breakfast Club reinforces my belief that when retrospectively looking back at earlier decades film fans generally tend to overlook the mass of duff films that were released and rewrite history by only highlighting the good ones. Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire, which concentrates on the interrelationships and problems of a group of recent university graduates as they morph into fully-fledged adults, is arguably more indicative of the times than John Hughes’s movie, but it is far less likeable (or, put more simply, not as good) and therefore it is largely ignored today. However for me it sums up the ‘me first’ decade (or my experience of it from a cultural perspective, at least) better than most other American coming-of-age dramas, even though the prevalence of whining, privileged, self-obsessed central characters here will test any viewer’s mettle. It’s an average film, at best, but it unquestionably captured the zeitgeist for better or for worse.
As per The Breakfast Club, which shared three of the same actors, the group at the centre of this drama is made up of clearly recognisable types; there are seven in total, all living in bedsits and apartments across Georgetown, Washington DC, where they attended university. Collectively they are standing at a crossroads. Some are keen to continue with the heavy-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle (primarily taking place in the titular college bar) but all are facing up to the demands of adult life in some way or other: career choices, marriage suitability, the onset of parenthood and the need to care for older family members are just some of the issues that are neatly dispersed among the characters in Schumacher’s screenplay, co-written with Carl Kurlander.
In fairness they’re not all irritating rich kids. Andrew McCarthy’s cynical wannabe writer may mope around from one location to the next, but he appears to be a decent sort (until, that is, he sleeps with his best friend’s long-term girlfriend….though circumstances let him off the hook). Mare Winningham, who has enjoyed lasting success on the small screen, plays the kind-hearted, socially-conscious Wendy with warmth; it says much that her inherently good qualities are largely overlooked by her friends, one of whom appears to be obsessed by the fact she is still a virgin at 22. Ally Sheedy’s trainee architect and Emilio Estevez’s doe-eyed lovesick chump both have good intentions, and the former in particular appears to be a valuable friend, concerned about the welfare of her peers.
They all stand in contrast to St. Elmo’s Fire‘s immensely disagreeable characters. Judd Nelson is a yuppie-to-be serial cheat who is effectively in the process of selling out his political beliefs for the benefit of his career on The Hill. Demi Moore plays an insecure beauty running up credit card debts while trying to retain her party girl status, while Rob Lowe is an immature ex-frat boy who finds himself separated from his wife and child and unable to hold down a job. It has to be said that Lowe is utterly dreadful here, the nadir of his performance being a mimed saxophone solo during a badly-dated musical number, which he was amusingly asked to recreate recently at a charity event.
Nelson and Moore fare better; they just happen to be playing petulant, devious and irritating characters. Nelson’s smugness as his Alec brags about an affair with a lingerie shop assistant to McCarthy’s Kevin makes for a fine scene, for example, while Moore’s airy ignorance in the presence of a homeless lady may mean you end up throwing things at the screen but she carries it off well. Such moments suggest that Schumacher has identified a certain malaise among college kids, perhaps predicting the yuppieisms that would blight the second half of the decade, but if his screenplay is supposed to offer biting criticism it soon gets lost amid the neatly resolved plot threads. Watching the more disagreeable characters moan about their self-inflicted problems may be a chore, but Schumacher’s decision to give all three scenes of redemption near the end of the film is a clunky attempt to tie everything up and balance the feelgood factor with other, more believable, bittersweet notes.
It’s a barely credible notion that this group of people would actually become friends. One or two of the seven are similar enough, but the idea that the characters played by Lowe and Winningham would be confidants, for example, is preposterous. With better writing it would be possible to overlook this kind of thing; just look at a sit-com like Friends, which has a similar scenario. Unfortunately Schumacher and Kurlander’s script is far from convincing.
It isn’t a terrible film, but it is severely hampered by the writing, and its WASP-ish smugness is accentuated by the inclusion of vaguely-racist minor roles (drug dealing Arabs are seen as potential rapists, a successful Korean businessman appears to be incapable of hiring a trustworthy, competent employee, etc). By the end we’re expected to believe that each of the main characters has crossed the threshold into adulthood because they decide to have an early night instead of entering St. Elmo’s bar for a drink. Such are the convenient, soap opera stylings of St. Elmo’s Fire, a disappointing youth-oriented movie that is so very typical of its era. Oh, and I don’t really want to be adding to all the unnecessary vitriol already out there, but I should also mention that Andie McDowell is very irritating here.
Directed by: Joel Schumacher.
Written by: Joel Schumacher, Carl Kurlander.
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Mare Winningham, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Andie MacDowell.
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum.
Editing: Richard Marks.
Music: David Foster, John Parr.
Running Time: 108 minutes.