‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ Or Rather Columbia’s ’80s Dumpster Fire

Originally posted on July 16th, 2017

When I posted the review for Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, I kept saying that I felt undecided about whether it was just that film that I didn’t particularly like, or if I had grown past the post-grad and college reunion themed comedy dramas. After watching 2014’s About Alex yesterday, I still haven’t a clue which answer is more right. The movie is only halfway charming thanks to its convincing troupe, but otherwise it’s merely an unspoken remake of The Big Chill where Alex survives his suicide attempt – spoiler alert, for those of you who haven’t seen The Big Chill.

Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire, on the other hand, just might be the worst of the ‘popular’ ‘80s flicks and post-grad genre. It’s barely a worthy time capsule for the most ridiculous trends in fashion, music, lingo and filmmaking styles. Not only does the film adhere to a number of genre clichés also found in either About Alex and Tiny Furniture, it enhances all of them in such a way to make this group of characters – save perhaps Ally Sheedy’s Leslie and Mare Winningham’s Wendy – the most insufferable, self-absorbed collection of privileged mouth breathers you could ever have the misfortune of walking past with your inherently better friends.

Normally, such a level of overtly distasteful behavior might suggest a tinge of self-reflexive flavor that makes each protagonist’s presence acceptable, because there isn’t any other way you could take them and the picture seriously, otherwise. Instead, there isn’t one clue given to lead us in that direction. It genuinely seems, with its numerous moments of saccharine, wistful music swelling during particularly ‘nostalgic’ scenes, that Schumacher and co-writer Carl Kurlander wrote each character and source of interpersonal drama to appear as relatable and reflective, in the most heartfelt of senses, of the audience being given a look back at what it felt like to be fresh out of college and swiftly thrust into adulthood.

People sure ate up that sentiment over three decades ago, as its gross back then equates to just over $86 million in today’s dollar value, stacked up against a budget that would be worth just under $23 million. Perhaps there are still those who eat it up, and I want to ask why. What is so relatable about this assortment of maddening, oblivious to their luck and obsessive – for a variety of reasons – individuals who went to a prestigious private university, some of whom finding employment almost immediately? Because they went to a bar? That one bar they kept open during the college careers, and where everyone on campus went?

Misogynistic, egotistical, materialistic, vain and borderline sociopathic protagonists representing the worst of wealthy youths in Reaganized America aside, the screenplay is nothing short of an incoherent mess. The film begins with a random moment that brings all seven together, it ends with yet another and the space in between is filled with unsubstantial plotlines that not only lead to barely any, if any personal renewal, but also give way for gossip thought left behind in high school locker rooms, hallways and restrooms. Time passes at the drop of a hat, and we’re not just asked to keep up with the various changes that come with it, we’re told to.

It’s as though Schumacher and Kurlander knew they could cash in on their bankable Brat Pack ensemble and wrote an admittedly disjointed amalgamation of antics and loathsome personalities just because they could. Their craftsmanship for this particular venture is shoddy to say the least, with no sense of direction to bring these characters to a final stage of personal growth, and an equal lack in focus to tell their half-hearted attempts at stories in even a superficially compelling manner. I’m tempted to call out either for possible caving to lethargy in the writing process, but it must have taken great inspiration to pass off any of who or what’s presented as enjoyable.

Without so much as an ironic laugh to derive pleasure from the gross ineptitude, thanks to the film’s classless characters and their uninteresting lives, it’s difficult to recommend St. Elmo’s Fire to anyone with a steady moral compass. It seems almost sacrilegious to include this movie and The Breakfast Club in the same breath, unless you grew up on pop punk band Bowling for Soup and regularly listen to their song “1985.” Whatever fraction of the 20-something post grad population this still appeals to and is accurately reflective of in the modern era, may the rest of us never have to endure their company.


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