St. Elmo’s Fire is a 1985 drama about a group of college friends who try to make the adjustment to real life with all kinds of entangling consequences.
There are always a few films that come to define a decade it seems, a ‘top 10’ list of titles that have had great commercial influence or created a trend or broke new cinematic ground. While St. Elmo’s Fire probably isn’t going to crack the top of anyone’s list for 80s greatness, it certainly gets an honorable mention, if for anything the its source and culmination of the term “Brat Pack.” It also kind of marked the end of an era of sorts in this genre.
The story is fairly simple, seeing seven friends find life after college more challenging than they expect as they deal with unstable careers, relationships, politics and betrayal, meeting, laughing, reminiscing, growing, fighting and loving at a local bar called St. Elmo’s Fire. They are played by Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, and Mare Winningham, and if you’re going to put together a cast of young quintessential 80s stars, that list is just about complete, minus Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall to name a few others.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, who would later gain infamy for the 90s Batman films, St. Elmo’s Fire is an ensemble film that features some solid performances though suffers from a smugness that keeps the broadly drawn characters at a distance, like a self-contained TV sit-com where the world revolves entirely around their own actions. It stumbles when it attempts to feel genuine but is entertaining when it loosens up and plays with the premise, such as the budding romances, which make up the majority of the conflicts.
That said, I want to talk about Jules. She’s played by Moore, and is arguably the real heart of the story. Jules works as an international banker but is having trouble letting go of her youthful escapes and as such, remains the group’s “party girl.” On top of that, she’s having an affair with her very married boss. At the bar where the friends all meet, St. Elmo’s Fire, she confesses this to Leslie (Sheedy), her best friend an aspiring architect, who expresses great disappointment and tries to dissuade Jules from the whole scene, including her lavish lifestyle of spending and partying. Further complicate things, later that night, Jules gives Billy (Lowe), the team’s man-child-type, who is a newly reluctant husband and father, a ride home, where, unsurprisingly, he makes a pass at her. This only infuriates her and she kicks him out of the car. But it’s about to get worse for poor Jules.
Eventually, she runs out of control. First, she gets axed from her job and is so far in debt, she loses all of her possessions, seized by creditors. The affair over as well, humiliated by her choices and overwhelmed with the sudden collapse, she has a significant turning point. Numb and crashing hard, she strips down to only a loose t-shirt, locks the door to her apartment, opens the windows of her spacious apartment and sits on the floor, inviting the winter freeze to embrace and kill her. Talk about a slow doom.
As her friends arrive and unable to get inside, other issues between them create problems as they work to try and save Jules, namely Alec’s (Judd Nelson) attempted murder of his best friend Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) over the railing of a fire escape outside Jules’ window. Why is Alec trying to leave Kevin a pile of mush on the pavement below? Hey, watch the movie. This isn’t Wikipedia. I’m talking about Jules right now. Either way, the whole gang shows up, and it’s finally Billy that busts his way in, and we come to the best part.
I won’t spoil what happens, but when you do watch it, and watch it you will, pay attention to this sequence because it’s some of the best work both Moore and Lowe have done, and serve as a rehearsal of sorts for their next film, About Last Night, in which they play a couple in and out of love. Moore is especially convincing here and their seriously compelling dynamic is obvious, with Lowe at the peak of his charm-boy status and Moore going against type and portraying some truly painful vulnerabilities. While the film itself is tonally all over the place and the direction lacks any real momentum, it’s the characters that keep St. Elmo’s Fire burning, and Jule’s freakout is the very best in the show. Go back in time and catch some fire.