“St. Elmo’s Fire” (citywide) wants us to love its Supercharged Seven, best friends just graduated from college and now taking their first steps in the outside world, but its screenplay by Joel Schumacher, the film’s director, and Carl Kurlander doesn’t let us. Instead of real people, they’ve created fast-moving upscale wise guys, so thoughtless, so utterly self-absorbed that you’re quite content letting them simply love themselves--they do it so well.
We’re given to understand that this protective badinage is supposed to mask tremulous, worthy souls underneath. Unfortunately, surface is all we’re given, and some of these fast-rising young actors have gotten so frighteningly good at surface that they may never even have to scratch the polish--more’s the pity.
It is possible to care about two, or perhaps three of them. Shiny-haired, bespectacled Mare Winningham plays one of life’s true nurturers, who mothers her welfare recipients in the Department of Human Resources program where she works. (That job is a major step for her; her father, Martin Balsam, a greeting-card tycoon, makes it clear that she wouldn’t ever have to work if she didn’t want to.) Her problem: a fatal attraction for the married, feckless Rob Lowe.
And there is Andrew McCarthy, of the wary blue eyes; a writer beginning as a reporter, who is Through With Love and deeply cynical about it, as only a 22-year-old can be. The film skitters away from McCarthy’s deepest personal questioning--his sexual identity--in a keenly disappointing way, particularly in this day and age, but he remains one of its two poignant characters.
These are kids with a sense of thought behind their eyes; actors who make every place they inhabit real.
Ally Sheedy, with her clever face and her vulnerability, is the other also-ran, but for all the time she has on screen, as the live-in lady of Judd Nelson and the secret crush of McCarthy, we can’t even tell in what field she’s so anxious to gain a foothold before settling down to marriage. There is no sense that she (or any of them) is connected to any profession at all; there is no passion about anything.
One of the big deceptions of “St. Elmo’s Fire” is the notion that it’s an inside look at this crucial age. Talk to young people just out of college today: They are full of passion, that and newly minted information. The “St. Elmo’s Fire” bunch, for all their wheel-spinning melodrama, is all surface--all speed and stylishness without a bit of emotional resonance beneath.
To get back to these seven improbable friends: (Incidentally, why are they so closely knit? Try to imagine the single college class that brought them together. Drama? Choral singing? Water polo? It’s one of those screenwriter’s givens, impossible to parse satisfactorily.) The women fare slightly better than the men. Demi Moore, interesting, inventive and lovable in “No Small Affair” is the group melodramatist, currently taking the credit card/controlled-substance spiral to its peak. This is all for the lost love of her father, currently on his third wife, only a few years older than Moore. (Oddly enough, our young moderns don’t seem to have heard of psychiatry.)
Saxophone-playing Rob Lowe is the film’s Mr. Irresponsibility. Saddled with a young wife and baby daughter from a necessary teen-age marriage, he can’t/won’t hold any job and can barely hold his liquor. Charm has gotten him through so far. You might find him the most infuriating of the group if it were not for the presence of Judd Nelson.
Nelson, it seems, is their hero. An odd choice, since not only does he cheat on Sheedy tirelessly, but he has just abandoned his long and deeply held political convictions to jump from the side of a Democratic congressman to that of a Republican senator. (A highly unlikely leap, my Georgetown friends suggest--with some fierceness.) The money he’s gained in this maneuver is supposed to impress and pacify Sheedy, whom he keeps pressuring to marry him.
The film makers seem to be writing about young men and (particularly) young women from their own era, not kids in their early 20s today. Even as idealism clashes with the bottom line of necessity, the college and post-college age students I’ve encountered hold onto their opinions in a remarkably sturdy fashion. I doubt that you’d gain a lot of ground with one of these women with this sort of turncoating.
But beyond the wavering morals of his character, actor Nelson has two expressions (coat collar up or coat collar down) and two modulations of emotion (flat or viciously angry). He does play fury convincingly, enough to make you fear for Sheedy’s gray matter at the film’s close. But he has virtually no range at all and the general approachability and charm of a land mine.
And finally, there is Emilio Estevez, who is here to represent romantic fixation, and does it to a fare-thee-well. (The woman fixated is Andie MacDowell as a former fellow student now in medical school.)
Presumably, the film’s posture tells us that Lowe’s charm is fast running out (we won’t even discuss the virtual erasure of his wife and daughter, passed on imperceptibly to better hands); that Nelson’s morals are shoddy; that by impulsively leaving law school Estevez has muffed things badly and so on. I don’t think it makes these points, certainly not in the minds of the young audience it will speak to the loudest.
Schumacher, who has been an art director and costume designer before writer and director, has a lethally fine eye for detail. Thus, just before Winningham gives Lowe a far-too-precious present at her apartment, we see how she is fixing it up, with candlesticks (Pottery Barn) and paint colors (Metropolitan Home) that are utterly, exactly familiar and right.
But it’s not the same as giving these seven a real sense of character, of outrage, of inner conviction. The film is a little St. Elmo’s fire of its own--a deceptively beautiful electrical display that can’t be confused with reality.
‘ST. ELMO’S FIRE’ A Columbia Pictures release of a Channel-Lauren Shuler production. Producer Shuler. Executive producers Ned Tanen, Bernard Schwartz. Director Joel Schumacher. Screenplay Schumacher, Carl Kurlander. Camera Stephen H. Burum. Art director Wlliam Sandell. Editor Richard Marks. Costumes Susan Becker. Music supervised & scored by David Foster. Visual consultant James Bissel. Set decorators Charles M. Graffeo, Robert Gould. Set designers James E. Tocci, Christopher Burian-Mohr. With Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Martin Balsam, Andie MacDowell, Joyce Van Patten, Jenny Wright, Jon Cutler.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.