St. Elmo’s Fire (Dir. Joel Schumacher, 1985)
“Sometimes I think that the one thing I love most about being an adult is the right to buy candy whenever and wherever I want” – Ryan Gosling
Is it too obvious to point out that the first twenty years or so of a middle class American’s life are pretty set? What I mean to say is that there’s an ordered progression to their life from birth to about twenty one. We have pre-school, followed by elementary school, followed by middle and high school, and then college. At every transition you have teachers, and ideally parents, pushing you toward the next step, preparing you to move on and forcing maturity. But in your early twenties it can be jarring when all that structure rapidly disintegrates.
That’s exactly where St. Elmo’s Fire picks up. It literally starts with an image of seven college friends walking away from Georgetown University after graduation. We know they graduated from Georgetown, not because they seem particularly D.C., but because throughout the film they often say things to one another like “real life is nothing like Georgetown”. St. Elmo’s Fire follows these seven friends through their first year post-graduation and the ensuing career/relationship drama. And for a while I honestly thought St. Elmo’s Fire could be the movie I’ve been searching for. A film that would, if not completely, at least tangentially address the stress and confusion of that power transfer. The transition, from being told what to do, to making those decisions yourself.
Instead, St. Elmo’s Fire is a film delivered in white styrofoam, glazed in a gooey sauce of nostalgia and caricature. It was hard to believe any of the characters on screen could actually exist outside the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s the kind of film where more screen time is devoted to Rob Lowe playing Rock n’Roll saxophone than to Rob Lowe caring for his young wife and child. It’s the kind of film where the main group of friends share an elaborate secret handshake but don’t have last names. It’s the kind of film that starts with seven innocent kids having drinks in their Ruby Tuesdays-eque neighborhood bar and ends with one of those friends doing a bunch of coke, barricading herself in her room, thereby forcing the rest of the gang to commandeer a blowtorch and cut through her window in order to “save” her. It’s a crazy white hot mess of a film. And the more you try to take it seriously, the more infuriating it becomes…but then again, if you just sit back and let the absurdity wash over you, well, it can actually be pretty funny.
Like I said, the characters only exist as broad types. There’s the coke snorting, credit card shopper named Jules (Demi Moore). The philandering workaholic, Alec (Judd Nelson). The lovelorn struggling writer, Kevin (Andrew Mccarthy). The frumpy socially conscious virgin, Wendy (Mare Winningham). The hard partying bohemian, Billy (Rob Lowe). The devoted, grounded one, Leslie (Ally Sheedy). And finally, Kirby (Emilio Estevez)… but more on him later.
Side note: Throughout the movie the gang is fully decked out in eighties fashions that for some reason reminded me of a less diverse Burger King Kids Club.
St. Elmo’s Fire starts with a hint of promise. At first the director, Joel Schumacher, seems to be going for a Robert Altman-light style of film making, especially with his use of overlapping dialog. Even the staging of the first few bar scenes was surprising in it’s depth of focus and use of background extras. However, soon enough this gives way to general hack work and basic shot reverse shot conversations. And any flaws in the film making are only heightened by a script that goes to painful lengths to make you understand that these are adults in adult situations. This isn’t the easy world of college anymore, therefore everyone has to sleep together and use the word “fuck”. A classic exchange being : Alec: “You fucked Kevin!”, Leslie: “Well, You fucked many!”.
And it’s a bummer man because I liked a lot of the little moments in St. Elmo’s Fire, particularly anything done by the Kevin character. He seemed to have wandered off a more self-aware, less hokey film and onto the set of this bizarre “Mickey Mouse Club discovers their bodies” movie. There’s Kevin ashing his cigarette in a stir fry. The shower door popping open during a sex scene between Kevin and Leslie. Even Kevin’s random political tangents seemed written for better film. Yet, after every small moment of wit inevitably something insane would happen. Billy deflowering Wendy. Alec dangling Kevin off a balcony…
Or the most bizarre story line in St. Elmo’s Fire, Kirby (Emilio Estevez) and his attempts to court a young female doctor named Dale (Andie Macdowel). Kirby runs into Dale at the hospital after Billy and Wendy have been in a car crash. We’re told that the two of them went on a date back when they were “in school” at “Georgetown”. Apparently nothing ever came of their one and only date but now that Kirby has seen her again, he falls head over heels. He then pursues her in a series of increasingly exaggerated acts of obsession. In the first, Kirby shows up two hours early for a dinner date, which is weird, but not a huge deal. But when that doesn’t go so well, Kirby follows Dale to a high class cocktail party, where after creepily watching her from a window in the pouring rain, he crashes the party and demands to see her. Again, this is borderline obsessive, but you’ve seen this kind of thing in movies before, and it can be endearing, whatever. It’s the final act of the Kirby story line that, aside from being implausible, is also borderline psychotic. Kirby throws a giant party at a Korean gangster’s house (don’t ask) in hopes that Dale will show up, when she doesn’t, Kirby finds out from her roommate that she went away on a ski vacation. So he borrows a car and literally drives hours into the mountains, in heavy snow, to “win her over”. I mean just imagine you and your boyfriend are shacked up in a remote cabin when a guy you went on one date with rambles up at three in the morning. It would be scary right? Needless to say this is a movie, so Dale doesn’t find Kirby’s complete disregard for social norms deeply disturbing, instead, she’s kind of charmed.
The whole Kirby story line exists apart from interlocking hookups of the rest of the cast. It’s almost written as a recurring gag to buffet the different acts. I could easily imagine the writers saying “Hey we’re tired of watching the rest of the gang, let’s see what sticky situation Kirby has gotten into.”
St. Elmo’s Fire also contains one of the cruelest depictions of a welfare recipient I’ve ever seen. Wendy works as a social worker and for some reason the film includes a throwaway scene in which Wendy is giving out aid to a single mother. The mother is covered in children of different ethnicities implying that she’s had children by many different men and when Wendy tries to give the mother advice on finding a job, she refuses the advice and demands her check. Not only is the mother’s depiction as one dimensional as a Ken Cucinelli argument, it serves absolutely no purpose in the larger story. Furthermore the welfare scene gets at a larger problem with St. Elmo’s Fire. The welfare mother is behaving exactly how someone who knows nothing about poverty would imagine a welfare recipient to act. The same way the twenty something characters behave exactly how someone would imagine twenty somethings would behave, not how people actually do.
The film ends, of course, with Billy headed off to New York City to pursue his dream as a Rock saxophonist. And wouldn’t ya know, he boards a bus with a giant sign on the front that says “New York”. Has anyone ever seen a bus with it’s destination written in giant letters right above the driver? I think that kind of bus only exists in movies. The rest of the crew then head over to St. Elmo’s for one final drink, but lo and behold, Leslie has to work in the morning. So what do they decide to do instead? Well, the film wants us to know that they’re adults now, so the decision is made to skip drinks and instead get brunch the next morning. That right, BRUNCH! Because apparently nothing says “we’re responsible, mature individuals” like eating breakfast at noon.
….And yet, despite every glaring flaw, every pained line of dialog, every saccharine mannerism, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad when the credits started to roll. I mean, for all it’s faults, St. Elmo’s Fire remains a pretty popular film and I have to admit, it kind of got me. I think this is in part because I’m a sucker for ensemble films. Not really movies like Traffic or Crash, but stuff like The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, even The Sandlot. For some reason they all hit me right beneath the heart. I can see the flaws, they’re staring me right in the face and yet… I can’t help but feel a sense of lose when they’re over. It’s like seeing a puppy in the window. You can rationally explain to yourself why you don’t want a living, shitting, hairy beast in your apartment… and yet something makes you go into the store anyway and adopt twenty.
– St. Elmo’s Fire, along with The Breakfast Club, is a quintessential film from the “Brat Pack”. Just in case you weren’t aware, this was a group of coming of age films in the 1980’s that starred a recurring group of young actors. Wikipedia has helpfully broken down the overlap here.
– I will say that all of the apartments in St. Elmo’s Fire are pretty cool. Kevin’s apartment is decked out with Woody Allen posters. Alec’s apartment has this giant vintage Nike ad on the wall. Needless to say they’re all better than my apartment, what with its water stained ceiling and giant Hustle and Flow poster.