Monday 6 January 2014

Movie Review: St. Elmo's Fire (1985)

A post-graduation coming-of-age drama and one of the essential Brat Pack movies, St. Elmo's Fire is crowded with stereotypes but nevertheless captures the angst of transitioning from the campus to the real world.

Seven friends in their early twenties are facing life soon after graduating from Georgetown University. Alec (Judd Nelson) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy) are living together, and while he is working as a political aid and ready to get married, she wants to wait. Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) is an aspiring writer and frequently hangs out with Alec and Leslie. Kevin's roommate is Kirby (Emilio Estevez), who has ambitions to study law but currently works as a waiter at St. Elmo's Bar, the group's favourite hang-out.

Billy (Rob Lowe) is the bad boy, a saxophone player with no career path, already estranged from his wife and infant child. Nevertheless, Wendy (Mare Winningham), a social worker, is deeply in love with him. Finally, Jules (Demi Moore) is a party girl and already sucked into a materialistic life she can't afford.

Alec can't help but cheat on Leslie as he waits for her to agree to get married, while Kevin harbours a secret crush on another member of the group. Kirby openly lusts after Dale (Andie MacDowell), a doctor who graduated a few years earlier, and starts stalking her. Billy and Wendy have a falling out, and she comes under pressure from her father (Martin Balsam) to marry a boring man and get into her family's greeting card franchise business. Jules seeks a short-cut to financial stability by starting an affair with her married boss. As the seven struggle to deal with the responsibilities of adulthood, their friendships are stretched to the breaking point.

The seven characters of St. Elmo's Fire are undoubtedly self-centred, over-dramatic, and generally quite irritating. Not one of them appears to have charted a logical emotional or career path, and their behaviour is more suitable to snotty high schoolers than university graduates. Allowing for the film's tilt towards the dysfunctionally exaggerated, St. Elmo's Fire does deliver some succulent drama. There is enough romance, lust, and irresponsibility going on to fill a few seasons' worth of guilty pleasure television, and director Joel Schumacher packages his movie with glossy wrapping paper and the nostalgia of early adulthood, when every little independent decision seemed like a monumental moment.

The script, by Schumacher and Carl Kurlander, creates characters that are vivid and memorable rather than unique. Each of the seven represents a broad societal pie slice, and there is no holding back on the amount of filling. Billy's rebel without a cause is all long haired, ear-ringed, unfocused imprudence, Wendy's goody two-shoes dresses like the Mayflower pilgrims, and Jules' slutty material girl lives life according to a Madonna soundtrack. Kirby's infatuation with Dale would qualify as a crime outside a movie script, but here is played for laughs, Kevin's dreamy-eyed long-haired aspiring writer drips idealistic romanticism, and Alec's out of control libido would condemn him as a sex addict. Leslie just barely qualifies as closest to rational, but even she quickly hops into a bed with a new lover at the first hint of a fight with Alec.

With the subtleties being pummeled, there is no need for textured acting, and no one ever accused the Brat Packers of excellence in the performing arts. Fulfilling the function of pretty faces representing their generation's excesses rather than intense dramatists, the seven actors dive into their strictly defined roles and embody them energetically, without ever moving beyond the obvious. Nelson, Lowe and Moore get to stretch the most, but even they are confined to stock displays of anger generated by hormones adjusting from the campus cocoon to the cold real world. Estevez, as a little boy lost in a horrible role, suffers the most.

The theme song St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion) is quite outstanding. Written by David Foster and performed by John Parr, it is overused throughout the film, but does capture the energetic anguish of responsibility. In St. Elmo's Fire growing up is hard to do, but at least it looks and sounds good.

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