I’ve been hearing the major theme to this movie (John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)”) regularly since the film first came out in 1985. It gets occasional radio play, and it’s catchy enough that I enjoy listening to it. But somehow St. Elmo’s Fire itself had managed to remain on my unseen movies list until now. Unlike some other “Brat Pack” films, that might actually be a good thing, since this isn’t a “high school” movie. Instead, St. Elmo’s Fire focuses on a septet of college graduates, as they learn the hard way that entering the real world does not automatically confer adult wisdom. It’s the sort of movie that ages well as the viewer gains more perspective on that time of life.
This is helped, of course, by having an ensemble cast of great actors, under the direction of Joel Schumacher.
There isn’t really a singular plot line that runs through St. Elmo’s Fire, nor any primary “star”. There are seven major characters, and each has their own character arc through the course of the film. The seven are all graduates of Georgetown University, and still reside in the area, where they are all friends and sometimes more. Judd Nelson plays Alec, who is the de-facto leader of the group. He’s the one that seems to have brought them all together in the beginning in the film, and at first glance appears to have his life in order, being an up-and-comer in political offices (though his friends tease him about his recent switch to Republicanism.) He’s living with Leslie (Ally Sheedy), and wants her to marry him, but she seems reluctant to face the commitment — and he doesn’t help his own cause there, as he has commitment issues of his own. His best friend Kevin appears to want to commit to nobody at all, having decried love as an illusion, and his sole ambition is to become an actual journalist instead of an obituary writer. Jules (Demi Moore) is flighty, a habitual drug user, and bad with money; she’s also prone to flights of fancy — specifically, she thinks Kevin is “fancy” due to his apparent lack of interest in women.
If she caught him singing along to a female empowerment song, she’d probably consider that the clincher.
Forming the third counterpart to mostly-grounded Leslie and space cadet Jules is Wendy (Mare Winningham), a demure and somewhat coddled child of privilege. She has all the money that Jules lives like she has, but she’d prefer to work with the homeless and have her own apartment — both of which are things that her father disapproves of, and though she’s in her twenties he still treats her as someone to be led by the hand. Given his willingness to arrange a marriage for her, this probably has nothing to do with her age. Her best friend in the group, despite the fact that she knows he’s trouble, is Billy (Rob Lowe); Billy is married and has a child, but would like nothing more than to return to being the frat boy he so recently was. The last member of the group is Kirby Keger, played by Emilio Estevez, who after a chance encounter at the hospital (following a minor crash caused by Billy’s drunk driving) becomes obsessed with Dale Biberman (Andie MacDowell), a woman he went on a date with in college.
Emiliophobia: The irrational fear that somehow, somewhere, Estevez is watching you.
The plot is a simple “slice of life”, bouncing these characters personalities off of each other and their situations. And though there is objectively nothing remarkable about the lives of these characters, it’s deeply entertaining. Part of this is because it’s full of witty one-liners and conversations, but perhaps part of it is the very fact that it’s not remarkable. It’s relatable. Even people who haven’t gone through these specific situations can recognize them, and understand them. And though there’s no singular plot, there is an overarching theme; all these characters, ostensibly grown-ups by society’s terms, need to deal with what it means for them to actually grow up. Alec’s on the verge of a mid-life crisis at 22. Leslie’s caught between her ideas of how a career and a relationship should co-exist. Jules has no foresight. Billy has no sense of responsibility. Kirby is fixated on a woman with the same sense of “destiny” that fuels juvenile romances. Wendy is smothered by her family. Kevin is aggressively detached from life. They’re adults, but only technically; they may have adult roles and responsibilities, but they have juvenile outlooks. But they’re all likeable. You want all of these characters to succeed even at the same time as it’s obvious where they’re going to self-destruct.
Part of it is the actors; there isn’t a stand-out actor here, but that’s only because they’re all great. Each character is possessed of a great deal of energy and life, with the only arguable exception being Wendy, and that’s because the character is meant to be subdued. The character development was not only acted well, but written well; the progression each character takes is believable given their situations, the negative actions are balanced with lighter moments, and none of the characters ever goes so far as to be completely unrelatable or unlikeable, no matter how pathetic they get. And the interplay within the group of friends ensures that there’s always a leavening aspect to the drama.
St. Elmo’s Fire is a very good film, and it’s one I suspect gets better on multiple viewings. I may have to pick up a copy for my personal library.