Review: St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

*note* – This article was previously published in the August, 2018, edition of Spermatorrhea, reprinted here as part of our Ironic Excellence in Criticism series, taking the finest reviews of film, music, literature and television from Brimborion Media and showcasing their brilliance without any attempts to highlight the nature of self-importance in, and overall pointlessness of, art criticism.

I read an article yesterday in Deadline by Carl Kurlander, the co-writer of the 1985 Joel Schumacher film St. Elmo’s Fire, in which Kurlander reflects on his time before, during and after the film’s writing and production, and the effects it maybe had, good and bad, upon the culture of young, urban, professional America. And I got super nostalgic.

I was 9 when it came out.  The movie was a social phenomenon to my age group.  At least in my little part of the world. 

It was also one of the bigger “Brat Pack” films of the decade. If you don’t know what that means, think Ocean’s Eleven. Think the other Ocean’s Eleven. It wasn’t the best and it wasn’t the first (The Breakfast Club, The Outsiders and Taps qualify in both categories), but it was hugely popular, and perhaps the first film, perhaps ever, about yuppies being yuppies in real time, geared toward both yuppies and future yuppies, and therefore, arguably, has a place in American yuppie culture as such, which has never really gone away.

The coming-of-age comedy/drama had been around for a while by then, but nothing really so captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s via a twentysomething, ensemble cast like St. Elmo’s Fire.  Around the same time, there was Barry Levinson’s Diner, but it not only had an all-male cast, and so lacked the latter’s gender diversity, it was set in the early 1960s.  Fandango, too—the underrated, virtually unseen Kevin Costner dramedy—but that was set in 1971.  Big difference in what was going on culturally in America between those three eras.  The “Eighties” as we think about them were in full swing by mid-decade, and everything they’re remembered for was on full display in St. Elmo’s, encapsulated pretty much in just one character: Jules, played exquisitely (and true-to-life) by Demi Moore.  Cocaine, dangling earrings, popped collars, pleats, bangs, crotch-bulging denim, the color pink, Arab antagonists, Billy Idol—it was all here, and Jules either donned it, displayed it, snorted it or screwed it throughout the entire film.

Though I remembered the nostril flaring, bug-eyed Alec (played by the nostril-flaring, bug-eyed Judd Nelson) doing a memorable job as the preppy, politicothario who’ll one day evolve into the alcoholic, wife-beating Reaganite, it was Jules who represented, all these years later in my memory, the Eighties and all its neon and superficial excesses.

So, with all that more or less as a nostalgic prelude, I sat down to watch St. Elmo’s again, not really knowing what to expect.  Not five seconds in, everything came flooding back to me, before the opening credits even appeared. You hear it, almost instantly: that lone piano playing David Foster’s memorable melody so beautifully, so hopefully, so movingly, and, by it, I was turned once again into that 9-year old kid at a sleepover, yearning for that ideal concept of adulthood to be presented to me once more.  And from that moment to the final scene, when everyone but Billy (Rob Lowe) exits stage right as one homogenized cluster of puffy-shouldered, overcoat-sporting whiteness, before even the end credits start rolling, I was enraptured every time it or any of its variations began.  For heaven’s sake, I began to slowly realize, the film even has its own leitmov!  I mean, it’s fucking Wagnerian!

Except, no, it wasn’t.  Because there was no tragedy involved, whatsoever.  Nothing that made you remember, or even want to care about, it or any of the characters. 

It was mainly a film about beginning to comprehend that you’re someone who has White People Problems, and they’re only going to get worse as you get older.  Until you get on with your life and grow up.  Which you probably won’t. 

Not even after a mortgage, a divorce or two, being dubbed ‘weekend dad’, a position in middle management, squirreling away an empty, materialistic lifestyle for yourself, evolving into a middle-aged, Lolita-loving pervert or a chain-smoking soccer mom who drinks too much Franzia Red and listens to Air Supply and Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam by herself on a Friday night, who will one day be canonized as the patron saint of ‘Netflix & Chill’.

Half an hour in, I started to realize how great some of the peripheral characters were, and how vivid their performances.  Which, frankly, is not a good sign.  When a film is full of unforgettable supporting characters, especially if they only appear in one scene, sometimes for less than a minute, it means the main characters are, at the very least, outright forgettable.  And here was no exception.

Street hooker Naomi nearly seducing Kevin on the curb (his sheltered, celibate angst was no match for her street-wise underworldiness); Mr. Kim’s unnamed lady chauffeur and the short interaction she has with Kirby; Dale’s roommate Judith’s reaction when she spots Kirby sniffing Dale’s pillow with borderline sex-offender creepiness; homeless Myra, seated next to Jules in the soup kitchen (her bug-eyes rivaling those of even Judd Nelson)—all these characters had moments just as memorable as any of the stars, sometimes more.

I mean, Myra didn’t have a single line, but she absolutely stole that soup kitchen scene.

Which weren’t too hard to steal, some of those scenes.  The film just kept throwing out fat pitches, allowing anyone to step up and knock one out of the park.  Your sluggers are supposed to do that, not some homeless woman you set up in the background merely to establish mood.  But it was ground-out after pop-out after strike-out. 

With a few notable exceptions.

The scene with Jules and Kevin in Jules’ gaudy, pink apartment, when Jules decides Kevin is gay, progresses like a short, two-person stage play (well, three, if you count the fabulously gay neighbor who appears at the end).  As Kevin, Andrew McCarthy could be really good as the snarky, cynical writer-type.  But then what should have been the best scene in the movie—Kevin’s telling Leslie that he’s been in love with her all throughout college—was almost unwatchable.  Okay, he was drunk.  But also way too bouncy.  And kind of coke-energy. 

Not inept or transparent.  Just coke-energy.  You’re still playing to an audience, even if you are pushing the limits of exercising your craft. 

Ally Sheedy was perfectly cast as Leslie, and Leslie was perfectly portrayed, in turn.  But maybe I’m just biased.  After all, I once tried unsuccessfully to make a four-foot, horizontal poster of Leslie the moment when she turned onto her stomach in bed, naked but for a pearl necklace, wrapped in a bed sheet, to look out through the bookcase that separated Kevin’s bedroom from the living room, watching him and Alec after Alec’s unexpected drop-in.  It was vulnerable, sexy, feminine and absolutely, positively sweltering in that ten-seconds of unguarded curiosity.  Brad Pitt crawling over Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise or Rita Hayworth doing “that shit with her hair” in Gilda via The Shawshank Redemption, and all the dirty old men swoon—it was in that echelon of cinematic sex symbolism.  And after War Games and then The Breakfast Club, it was hard not to be a kid and have developed a massive kid crush on her, sexual or not. 

And that most famous of all mimbos of the ‘80s, Rob Lowe—the Pamela Anderson of his generation, the Brad Pitt of the, well, ‘80s, an actor who unintentionally played the same character in every movie he made, much in the same way Tom Cruise played the same character in every movie he ever made: the Smirking Yuppie—just pulled a Rob Lowe.  Only, for some reason, unbeknownst to everyone, Tom Cruise, who has more or less pulled many Rob Lowes in his career, is still around and wildly successful.  If money and Scientology are any indicators. 

Sorry.  That would be redundant. 

There will almost always be a weakest link in an ensemble film like this, the amount of screen time being equal across cast.  And it was Rob Lowe.  But, hey, with a face like that, what did he care?

And what did I and 999,999 other tweenage girls care, too, for that matter?  It could have been Rob Lowe making a porno film, and we still would have watched it.  (*clears throat, looks sideways around the room*) 

And, just as there will likely be a nadir, so will there be an apogee.  And who was it, in this by-many-metrics-forgettable-yet-can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head-like-it’s-a-viral-ear-infection of a film?  Its one saving grace?

The theretofore critically acclaimed Mare Winningham? Nope.

Emilio.  Fucking.  Estevez.

He had one of the more minor roles it seemed, but was rock solid as the waiter/pizza delivery boy who’s going to make a fabulous lawyer someday.  No question.  I mean, with White People Problems, no doubt.  And until he’s the guy working behind the scenes for Johnnie Cochran as part of the O. J. Simpson legal defense team ten years down the road, you’re rooting for him all the way.

Who, incidentally, according to creator and co-writer Kurlander, was the main character of the original story, based on Kurlander himself, who had in real life stalked, via virtually the exact same storyline, a D.C. waitress, about whom the Andie McDowell character was written. 

In the Deadline article, Kurlander tells a funny story about Emilio’s response to hearing that just about everything his character goes through in the film actually happened in real life.  He’s apologetic now, Kurlander is, for the stalking, and the first step is always admitting you have a problem, but also acknowledges that no harm ever came of it, only encouragement from his target to pursue writing as a career, and a lifelong friendship with that former obsession, who’s now his D.C. neighbor.

And what was Emilio’s response?  A shake of the head as he lowered it, with a furtively judgmental chuckle.

Which was pretty much my reaction to watching this movie again some three decades later.  But there’s also some other emotions in there, too, besides the shame.

Like the scene I remembered best from my youth—Jules, hunkering in her empty, pink apartment, most of her things repossessed, melting down like a Chernobyl reactor, not necessarily trying to freeze herself to death, as was speculated by Leslie, but just having reached the end of her rope, numbed by the overwhelm, and wanting no more of the excesses that had brought her there.  It moved me to tears, all over again.

And for some reason, right then, the writers handed maybe the best lines in the film over to Rob Lowe to deliver.  And you know what?  He nailed it.  Rob Lowe style.

The scene did confuse me some when I was little.  I didn’t get why there wasn’t something more hackneyed going on, something for which I had more of a frame of reference: suicide, murder, physical violence.  It’s what we’ve become used to in our TV or film offerings by way of deep drama, and by then even I had come to expect it.  Yet what played out here was far more subtle.  And far more real. 

And it brought the overarching theme of the film back to the fore, and you understood what the movie was really about: friendship, and how important it can be to people at their lowest points.

Which, when you’re twenty-three, is like a couple times a week. 

These guys were good friends.  Great friends.  And through infidelity, heartbreak, loneliness, not living up to your own expectations or life giving you repeated, swift kicks in the nads, having someone who cares for and loves you comes to mean more than the soulless material accumulation, ladder-climbing, recreational drug use and meaningless sex around you. Or, as Kurlander himself succinctly puts it, “St. Elmo’s Fire is about first apartments, first jobs, first loves, and trying to hold onto friendships when all this collides with adulthood.” Themes which were made especially all the more poignant some 35 years later against the backdrop of the atomizing, me-for-mine ethos of the 1980s.