Monday, December 28, 2020

Reeling Backward: "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985)


 "We're all going through this. It's our time on the edge."


For another entry in my series of "Films of the '80s I Was Too Busy Doing Nerdy Stuff To Watch" we have "St. Elmo's Fire," a very cool movie starring a bunch of very cool actors that all the cool teenagers and college students went to see.

It's a seminal work in the Brat Pack phenomenon, which played out more in magazines and pop culture than actual celluloid. The story focuses on seven recent graduates of Georgetown University who are trying to get their careers and love lives going in the D.C. area, failing miserably but having a ball while doing it.

Director Joel Shumacher cast Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson based on John Hughes' recommendation for their work in his "The Breakfast Club," which hit theaters just four months earlier. Reportedly Schumacher had to beg the studio to let him hire them, since nobody really knew who they were at the time. 

Same (mostly) goes for the rest.

Demi Moore had a bit part in "Blame It On Rio" the year before, and Andrew McCarthy had a starring role in "Class," a modest hit two years before. Mare Winningham, the lone non-Packer of the bunch, had similarly been in only a few things.

Rob Lowe, just 20 years old at the time of filming, was the relative established star of the bunch, already a graduate of "The Outsiders," "The Hotel New Hampshire," a leading role in "Oxford Blues" and playing alongside McCarthy in "Class."

Looking back on "St. Elmo's" now, I can see why it was big cultural hit (and to a lesser extent than is generally acknowledged, a box office one). It straddles the the line between late Baby Boomers and Generation X in its appeal to both. The former was graduated from college and partying, and the latter was dreaming about doing so.

It's a spot-on portrait of a very specific point in life for white-collar types, where you have a close circle of friends who are not yet tied down to family and your careers are just getting started. So you are literally around each other all the time, either everybody together or smaller break-off groups. Some people work together or share an apartment. Likely there's a mix of genders, so there's a certain amount of bed-hopping and broken hearts built into the mix.

"St. Elmo's" is terrific at capturing that time. At pretty much everything else, it's atrocious.

My biggest impression after watching it for the first time is that the four male characters are, without exception, terrible human beings. They're manipulative and caddish and make like they're friends with the three women, but are usually just trying to get into their pants, or any woman's.

Any regular reader of this column will know that I generally stay away from political analysis of film, and I absolutely loathe bashing movies from long ago for not syncing with today's sensibilities. That said, "St. Elmo's" makes the 1980s in general and the young men of that age look terrible.

Let's take the best first. McCarthy's Kevin is a sullen, chain-smoking mope who hasn't had sex in years. He's landed a plum job at the Washington Post straight out of college -- which is starting a journalism career on third base -- but is upset that he's consigned to writing obits. Everyone seems to think Kevin's gay, and there's a brief, interesting flirtation with the idea that would've been interesting to explore in a mainstream 1985 movie. 

So, of course, it doesn't.

Kevin seems like the quintessential "friend zone" dude that girls love as a pal but don't want to jump in the sack with. Veeeerrrryyy late in the movie -- so late it feels tacked on -- we learn the object of his mopey obsession is Leslie (Sheedy), an ambitious architect with cold feet about getting tied down too soon.

Unfortunately, Leslie is pre-engaged to Alec (Nelson), the most aggressively awful of the boys. A gung-ho liberal in college, he's working for a Republican senator because it pays better and because it's the current flavor of the decade. Alec keeps pressuring Leslie to marry him, though hides the real reason: he's a serial cheater, and has deluded himself into believing that if he puts a ring on it, it'll settle his Lothario urges. 

In one of the film's few clever tweaks, Alec and Leslie begin dressing more alike as the movie goes on, with heavy doses of the popped collars and skinny ties of the era.

Alec is the unofficial, self-appointed leader of the group of friends. One of his prime duties is bailing out Billy (Lowe) from his latest scrap or finding him a new job. A saxophone-playing party machine on campus, Billy is gorgeous and guileless, without a mean bone in his body but self-absorbed down to his guts. 

Billy already has a wife (barely seen Jenny Wright) and baby girl, the result of a schooltime romance and quickie marriage, but he's barely ever home. The group fuckup, Billy crashes with whoever will take him.

He leans most heavily on Wendy (Winningham), who's 22 going on 50. The straight-arrow virgin Jewish girl, Wendy comes from money but has taken a job working for the city public assistance agency, where she's hollered at or ignored by the entitled downtrodden. She is infatuated with Billy, who "borrows" money via her father (the great Martin Balsam), a greeting card store baron who wants to bribe his daughter with a Chrysler LeBaron to marry a nice Jewish boy who has committed the unpardonable sin of being homely.

(Really, dad? Couldn't even spring for a Corvette?)

In the movie's calculation, being a total loser who looks like Billy is better than being smart, stable and doting.

Billy uses Wendy quite poorly, making a mockery of her affection for him, then offering to bed her like a master passing out table scraps to the family pooch.

He makes much the same offer to Jules (Moore), the hard-charging self-described slut of the group. Julies is a party-every-night girl who's failing at her banking job while spending her way into a pile of debt. On the surface she seems like the toughest one in the group but we know it's a matter of time before her house of cards comes piling down on her. 

Probably the most underwritten of the main characters, Jules registers as a retrograde "type," the have-it-all feminist who's really a narcissistic weakling.

The one character who seems to operate more or less outside the rest of the gang is Estevez' Kirby, who works at the titular bar while studying law. Early on he bumps into Dale (Andie MacDowell), an ER doctor who was three years ahead of him at college. He more or less decides on the spot that he's still in love with her... and therefore she must be with him, too.

Kirby contrives all sorts of sitcommy contretemps to lure her in, from booking a table at a fancy restaurant (arriving two hours early and paying double to secure it), switching to medical school to follow in her footsteps, borrowing his boss' limo to pretend to be suddenly rich, and tracking Dale down at a ski lodge where she's canoodling with another doctor. 

Kirby's behavior is straight-up psycho stalker, and the fact the movie tries to spin it into some kind of adorable love quest seems really skewed. Things wind up with him stealing a kiss so rapturous that as he drives off, Dale is left touching her lips with a "what if" look on her face.

Date rape -- it means he really likes you!!

You can practically see the seeds of "Friends" being sown her, along with a dozen other TV shows about single young people in an urban setting. Indeed, "St. Elmo's" has a very situation dramedy feel to it, and we feel like it starts in the third season. So the audience is assumed to intuitively grasp the characters' backstories and various magnetic poles, and pulls.

They even have their own built-in nonsense catchphrase, where they all lean into a circle and chime something like, "Boogedy boogedy boogedy Ah Ah Hah!"

The film starts out very light and goofy and steadily tries to get more serious. The script by Schumacher and his former assistant, Carl Kurlander, is fast-paced to the point of approaching a slamming-doors comedy or the patter of "His Girl Friday." We never have time to become emotionally invested in the characters, so we don't.

(It was, appropriately, Kurlander's only feature film writing credit.)

There was an attempt a few years back to turn "St. Elmo's Fire" into a TV series, but I think its best expression would be as a limited streaming series of 13 one-hour episodes or so. Each of the characters' journeys could start and stop at different points, overlapping and intersecting with each other.

Instead, it feels like a music video version of a movie -- lots of teased hair and pop rock, then we're on to the next cool thing.

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