There can be no doubt that St. Elmo's Fire owes a great deal to The Big Chill (though not to The Breakfast Club, as St. Elmo's Fire was in production prior to that film's release). St. Elmo's Fire deals with a group of friends rather recently out of college who start adjusting to life in the real world. Like The Big Chill, it deals with troubles and disillusionments, it's an ensemble piece, and every character has his own quirk or problem to work out. In fact, the characters in this sort of film are practically identified by their problems. Ally Sheedy Isn't Sure She's In Love, Andrew McCarthy is Unspoken Love, Mare Winningham is Repressed, Rob Lowe is Destructive and Immature, and so on. Why can't just one of the characters not have a major problem which the film must address? For me, this choice of story structure reveals what is artificial about these relationship films. Do all of your friends fall apart at once?
Not to give the impression that I didn't like St. Elmo's Fire. I think I liked it more than The Big Chill, perhaps because the people involved here are closer to my age and their problems are closer to mine. St. Elmo's Fire is a well written, directed, and acted effort.
In an ensemble piece, the performances must not only be good, but they must mesh. The actors come together pretty well in St. Elmo's Fire, perhaps because so many of them have worked together before. Judd Nelson, Sheedy, and Emilio Estevez did The Breakfast Club recently, Lowe and Sheedy did Oxford Blues, Lowe and McCarthy did Class, and so on. The ensemble gives the feeling that they really are good friends, and old friends. The entire group must also be relieved that they are being permitted to play their own ages, for a change, rather than masquerading as high school students.
For individual performances, I think McCarthy and Sheedy impressed me the most, but I'm willing to admit to prejudice here. All of the lead performers are good. I might have been a bit more impressed with Judd Nelson's performance if I hadn't just seen him do a very similar role in Fandango. Lowe has the least sympathetic part, but he does make a convincing heel. Estivez's part is a bit superficial. He makes the most of his moments, though. Mare Winningham plays something of a human doormat. Her performance must be counted a success in that she makes the viewer want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to stop letting people take advantage of her. Demi Moore is the crazy of the group, living too fast and loose, and she is convincing in her frantic attempts to have it all while it's really all slipping away. Martin Balsam is the only notable representative of the older generation (as Winningham's father), and he isn't given much to work with.
The failure to give most of the characters any parents or family is but one symptom of something that some people will not like about St. Elmo's Fire. It's a Yuppie movie. (Yuppie's families tend to be very much off the scene, perhaps because Yuppies move around so much.) All the characters are overprivileged. They all have a good college education, they're all basically healthy, they have access to excellent jobs, they don't really need to worry about money. Some members of the preview audience I saw this film with complained that it was just an empty film about empty Yuppies and their trivial problems. My mother probably would feel the same, as she has scant sympathy for films about the sufferings of the well-to-do, being a child of the Depression. I have no answer for such criticisms. St. Elmo's Fire doesn't either. There is no indictment of the characters' lifestyle, other than a few empty platitudes and a silly simile on the illusory nature of the hunt for success. And yet, I've always felt that this kind of criticism is a bit naive. If one states that films about the tragedies and problems of the well-to-do are irrelevant, I'd say one is coming close to the position that money buys everything, including happiness. At any rate, if your tolerance for poor little semi-rich kids is low, you have been warned.
St. Elmo's Fire was directed by Joel Schumacher, who also co-wrote the script with Carl Kurlander. Schumacher has previously served as a "hired gun" type director on some undistinguished but competently made films. His interest in and sympathy for this material brings out more talent than he has previously shown. He displays some nice, non-intrusive camera moves and helps build the relationships between the characters in an effective manner. The script suffers at the level of plot, dropping us cold into the middle of the relationships and taking a few uncertain turns. However, it doesn't always choose the easiest way out of a tight spot, to its credit. The dialog is good. While the characters tend to suffer from a lack of dimensionality, the script does at least offer us clear delineations between them. This is not one of those scripts where the lines could be switched from one character to another without any major difficulty. Schumacher, a former production designer, makes particularly good use of sets and costumes, both in the script and in his direction. A good exercise while watching St. Elmo's Fire is to pay attention to what the characters' clothes and apartment furnishings say about them. The overall production design is exceptional. Some Washington, D.C. locales, especially those in Georgetown, make a nice change from the standard LA/New York scenery we see so often.
St. Elmo's Fire is not, in most respects, exceptional or outstanding. It offers some fine young actors (I get to call them that because they're a couple of years younger than me) a chance to stretch a little bit, and it's well intentioned. The film is enjoyable, especially if you fit in the age group in question. Great insights and finely rounded characters are not delivered, but I never really thought they would be. Considering that the summer is upon us, St. Elmo's Fire may be one of the most mature films to be released for several months, a frightening thought in and of itself. St. Elmo's Fire is a well calculated summer film. It's much more thoughtful than, say, Rambo or The Goonies, but it doesn't frighten its audience away with too much depth. Like a light classic novel read at the beach, it allows you to feel a little virtuous without expending much effort.
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