Like most kids from the 80s onward, I have a special place in my heart for the Brat Pack. Mostly in regards to the John Hughes films (although I also like the Cameron Crowe projects like Say Anything or Fast Times at Ridgemont High), if you can look past the garish 80s fashion, there’s just something timeless in those films that still resonate with a lot of young people today. They can be cheesy and predictable and occasionally a tad disingenuous, but for everybody who had a real teen experience with all of the emotional melodrama inherent in those years, it speaks to you. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point I knew all the words to Pretty in Pink. But what happens when the Brat Pack grows up? What happens when a known franchise ruiner (although Batman was a decade off) like Joel Schumacher steps into a good thing? You get the addled mess, St. Elmo’s Fire.
Whoever signed off on this film at Columbia should have been terminated from their position. While the premise is intriguing enough, it’s execution is an almost uniform failure. Roughly a year after graduating from college, seven best friends navigate the turbulent reality of adult life. The highly successful Alec (Judd Nelson) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy) have just moved in together, and although Alec regularly hints to Leslie that they should get married, he regularly cheats on her. Their friend Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), a struggling journalist, is madly in love with Leslie, to the point that the way he ignores all other women makes his friends suspect he is gay. Billy (Rob Lowe) is dating Wendy (Mare Winningham) even though he’s married with a kid and sponges all of her money. Jules (Demi Moore) is a party girl whose out of control spending is only matched by her coke habit, and Kirby (Emilio Estevez) starts an unhealthy obsession with a young doctor (Andie MacDowell).
Before I eviscerate the film for its cliche characters, cheesy dialogue, wildly uneven acting, and utterly unsympathetic characters, let me shine a light on its redeeming points. Although Pretty in Pink makes me instinctually dislike Andrew McCarthy (“His name is Blaine!? Oh! That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!”), he’s by far the most compelling character in the film. As one of the few characters whose sympathetic side greatly outweighs his flaws, his story of unrequited love is something that everyone can relate to. And Andrew McCarthy makes Kevin into a warm but wounded figure that is often the glue holding his group of friends together. Similarly, Ally Sheedy has her moments to shine as the beleaguered Leslie. Though she doesn’t have much to do most of the film, when she finally confronts Alec about his infidelity (and share’s her pain with Kevin afterwards), she shows Leslie’s sensitive side.
Unfortunately, the rest of the performances are less than impressive. Judd Nelson was only behind Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club for the best performance in the film (well, if you don’t count the principal), but he reads his lines as Alec as if there is something essentially off in Alec’s brain, which makes no sense since he’s a successful campaigner for politicians. Mare Winningham portrays the only other sympathetic character in the film with Wendy, but Wendy is such a doormat (and Winningham’s performance is so dull) that you never really make yourself care that she is constantly being used by the rakish Billy. Rob Lowe may have won the Razzie for this film (although he wasn’t great, I didn’t think he was actively bad), but that honor should have been bestowed to the lifeless and stale Demi Moore who provided no emotional context for the continual self-destruction of Jules.
Then there’s Emilio Estevez. His performance is fine, and he actually taps into a great bit of passion and occasionally rage that recalls his father, Martin Sheen, who he bears an almost freakish resemblance to. It’s his character. Although the film makes it obvious that his feelings for Andie MacDowell’s Dale are unhealthy, it doesn’t do a good enough job of reminding the audience that he is essentially a completely crazy stalker. The film even rewards his creep behavior with a scene that I don’t want to ruin for those who potentially haven’t seen the film. It’s a flaw with much of the film because there aren’t enough real consequences for the narcissism and selfishness at the core of most of the film’s characters. The film, instead, is far too eager to offer pat lessons and overly simple conclusions.
It’s also just incredibly difficult to sympathize with these people. If this film were to be described with a twitter hash tag, it would be #WhitePeopleWithProblems . Nearly everyone in the film originally comes from a high socioeconomic background, and through stubborness, pride, mental instability, and flat-out stupidity, they wreck things themselves. As a college student who has made his own share of errors concerning his education and life, this could be relatable, but the film gives you no reason to emotionally invest in these individuals other than the power of investing in the actors and archetypes of the stars. The potential is out there (and HBO has recently begun exploring it with Girls) to make a great piece about the terror that is transitioning from college to the real world, but St. Elmo’s Fire assuredly isn’t it.
Final Score: C+