Recently on a bored weeknight, I sat down to watch the 1985 Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire. I’m not entirely sure why it is a classic, because it wasn’t really that good of a movie. If it were a 30-year-old person instead of a movie, it would have all the signs of having spent a few too many hours in the tanning bed. Not to say it’s surprising a movie whose success likely hinged on the It Kid status of its stars hasn’t aged well, but damn if this movie doesn’t seem like a frozen slice of a very different time — one that it seems nigh on impossible to update without scrapping basically everything about it besides the extremely basic (generic) premise.
The characters are what we’d today call the dreaded millennials: just-graduated professionals trying to figure out a place and a direction in life. They live (like me) in DC; they lust after one another; they struggle with money and relationships and various vices. So far, so relatable, right? But then you get into the details: Alec and Leslie (Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson) are on their way to engagement and live in an insanely cavernous apartment that they somehow afford despite Alec working on the Hill. Billy (Rob Lowe) is a deadbeat dad whose mullet, earring, constant face sweat, and saxophone-playing prowess make him irresistible to the ladies, especially Wendy (Mare Winningham), a frumpy, good-hearted virgin doormat who seems destined to be married off to an actuary type named Ralph. Then there’s the promiscuous, broke Jules (Demi Moore), and tortured, possibly gay writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy).
And then there’s the worst character out of all of them — and I include womanizing asshole Alec in that — Emilio Estevez’s character, Kirby. Kirby works at a shitty Georgetown restaurant to pay for law school, but his real job is stalking Dale, a beautiful doctor he met like one time and has decided is now his possession. Remember how Gaston treats Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Yeah, this is like that, except without any of the catchy song-and-dance numbers or raw-egg swallowing. Kirby is an actual monster: He literally stalks Dale to parties where he knows no one, then causes a giant scene; gets a job with an attache of some kind just so he can throw a party at the guy’s house to invite her to, then verbally harasses her roommate when she doesn’t show up; then literally stalks her some more, all the way to a cabin in the mountains, where she is having a perfectly nice, consensual vacation with a perfectly nice guy, and proceeds to act like a giant whiny baby and ruin their entire night. Oh, and then he mouth-rapes her before driving back down the mountain with nary an apology to either her or her boyfriend. And the worst part is, Dale is written to find this all vaguely charming and a bit amusing, rather than immediately calling the fucking police to get a restraining order.
Unless I’m missing something big, I have a really hard time believing anyone, even in the coke-addled ’80s, would find this character anything but repugnant. Then again, all of the characters are pretty repugnant in their own ways, with the exception of Wendy, though she’s such a wet blanket it hardly even counts.
What’s extra fascinating, though, is the economics of these people’s lives, so different from today’s millennials. If this movie were set today, Kirby would live with nine other dudes in a group house whose bathrooms hadn’t been cleaned once since they moved in; Alec and Leslie would share a studio in Glover Park and hate each other silently most of the time; and Kevin would be homeless and probably addicted to heroin. Jules wouldn’t be able to get even a single advance on her paycheck; Kirby in the movie switches from law school to med school to being a diplomat’s assistant without even breaking a sweat (whereas today he would definitely be a Subway sandwich artist).
Their struggles should be understandable, but they just feel hollow and horrible; why should we root for a guy who abandons his wife and kid and tries to rape his good friend, or really care about a spoiled girl whose only cross to bear in life is her obvious raging daddy issues? The movie ends relatively upbeat, but you have to wonder: Why? I guess that’s why this movie feels so fully ancient and untranslatable now: Its vibe, its characters, its message, everything about it, is just as selfish and decadent — and ultimately doomed to ruin — as the decade it was made.