It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched St. Elmo’s Fire, one of my favorite movies from the Brat Pack era of the ’80s. Released in 1985 just five months after The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire stars quite a few of the same actors, but instead of playing teenagers learning life lessons in Saturday school, they’re playing college graduates learning life lessons as adults, and I use that term very loosely.
We’re introduced to six friends. Kirby Keager (Emilio Estevez), aka Kirbo, a law student and waiter at St. Elmo’s Bar, Billy Hicks (Rob Lowe), an irresponsible musician and ladies man, Kevin Dolenz (Andrew McCarthy), a struggling writer, Jules Van Patten (Demi Moore), a rich party girl with daddy issues, Alec Newbury (Judd Nelson), a yuppie looking to get into politics, Leslie Hunter (Ally Sheedy), an architect and Alec’s girlfriend, and Wendy (Mare Winningham), who comes from a wealthy family but works as a welfare employee and dreams of becoming independent.
The film follows these six friends through post-graduate life and every plot is intertwined with one another. Billy has lost job after job, despite Alec’s best efforts to keep him employed. Billy also has a wife and newborn baby, though it’s very clear that this is not a happy home. Wendy is a virgin and struggling to break free not only from her wealthy parents but from Billy whom she is secretly (or not so secretly) in love with. He seems to know her feelings for him and often takes advantage of her generous nature. Jules is a banker and neglected by her father, a serial divorcé. She hides her pain behind reckless spending and partying, much to the concern of her best friends. Leslie and Alec have just moved in together, but Leslie is reluctant to marry Alec who uses Leslie’s hesitance as an excuse to constantly cheat on her behind her back. Kevin is a bit surly and working towards getting his own byline in the paper. Jules seems to think he’s gay because he never dates, but the truth is, he’s secretly in love with Leslie. Kirby is the only character whose subplot is separate from the others. He runs into Dale (Andie McDowell), an old college crush, at a hospital and finds those feelings have not gone away. There is very little of Kirby with the rest of the gang because he’s so focused on winning over Dale who happens to already have a wealthy, handsome boyfriend.
Watching this movie now with a more “mature” outlook on life, I found my views on it changed quite a bit than when I used to watch it as a teenager. I no longer found Rob Lowe’s Billy to be the dreamy bad boy I remembered him to be. In fact, he was a jerk, cheating on his wife and never being around when they had a baby to take care of. He hit on his friends and very nearly assaulted Jules when she turned down his advances. They all know he’s irresponsible and makes everything into a joke, and I suppose friends really stick together, but damn did they let him get away with far too much. And Kirby? He admits it himself, he’s “obsessed” with Dale, but his behavior is straight-up stalkerish, something they glamorize in the movie. He watches her from the rain outside a window, screams at her place of employment after he holds a party at his boss’s house for her and she doesn’t show. He threatens her roommate to tell him where Dale has gone. He drives into the wilderness to track her down at a remote log cabin with her boyfriend. It’s creepy behavior, but Dale seems to find it cute, even if she has no intention of leaving her boyfriend for him.
I would say the other characters were just as horrible save for Wendy, who just wanted to love someone and have that love reciprocated. With six leads and only an hour and a half runtime, there’s not much character development going on at all, and the Schumacher simply focuses on their obnoxious behavior rather than show us any reason why we should root for them. We’re thrust into their drama and everything seems to be wrapped up quickly and neatly in the last ten minutes of the film. Maybe if it had a slightly longer runtime we could have seen a different side to these six people, some more history or growth. The upside is that the majority of the cast all give pretty good performances and you’re slapped in the face with 80’s nostalgia. The abundance of feathered hair, the loud cringeworthy clothes, and the music. With vinyl records making a comeback it was fun to watch Leslie and Alec split up their records. “No Springsteen is leaving this house. You can have all the Carly Simons.”
St. Elmo’s Fire has its problems, but there really is a good movie buried in there somewhere. Maybe if the characters had been a bit more likable and slightly less melodramatic. Or maybe I needed an ending that wasn’t so tidy. Would it have been better if John Hughes had directed this? Sometimes I forget this wasn’t a John Hughes production, given the feel of it. I know the movie is considered a “classic” of the Brat Pack era, but it just doesn’t hold up the way some of the other films do.