Demi Moore’s apartment in St. Elmo’s Fire is a truly fabulous sight to behold. Her living room walls are painted a shocking pink that offsets a self-consciously tasteful brown couch and armchair and geometric coffee table. The seating is piled high with pink, blue, and cream colored pillows. Dramatic plants sit on the coffee table and by the door. The pièce de résistance is a giant mural of Billy Idol, complete with neon-lit embellishments. The tableau is about as far from minimalism as you can get. The interior design of this apartment—extremely ’80s and proudly defying notions of good taste—is a microcosm of this silly but oddly compelling film.
Writer/director Joel Schumacher, who recently passed away at the age of 80 and has long been known for a body of over-the-top (and often poorly received) work like The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin, and Flatliners, openly embraced tackiness onscreen. St. Elmo’s Fire, starring an ensemble cast of quintessential Brat Pack actors and bubbling with soap opera drama, may well be one of the most ’80s films ever made. Both its outlook and its aesthetic are quintessentially Reagan-era. In a contemporary review for New York magazine, critic David Denby called the movie “less a movie than a pretentious teen product—Guess? Jeans on celluloid.”
The film, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary (yes, the film itself is now over a decade older than its protagonists), follows a group of post-collegiate friends as they navigate their careers and love lives. The plot is fairly thin, and the characters are by and large unlikeable. Through the lens of a hot take: what Girls is to millennials, St. Elmo’s Fire is to Gen X yuppies. The cast of characters is white, upper middle class, and prone to self-absorption. The film is often spoken of alongside The Breakfast Club for its shared cast members and 1985 release date, and both films rely on cliché characters embodied by charismatic actors (the who’s-who-of-the-decade cast includes Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, and Rob Lowe). There are bad boys and good girls, professionals and fuck-ups. Everyone smokes cigarettes constantly. There’s something oddly comforting about the film—it is both dramatic and inconsequential. Characters may sleep around and betray one another but watching the film in 2020, with a level of (quite possibly misplaced) nostalgia, such behavior seems entertainingly decadent. The characters may all be young, but they perform adulthood with a boldness that feels alien to the post-aughts world of cutesy ideas of “adulting” and “self-care” mixed with catastrophic unemployment and increasing precarity on a global and local level.
As the big-haired, glamorous Jules, Moore carries herself with an air of practiced sophistication. She is baby-faced and smoky-voiced. It’s obvious that she put a lot of effort into decorating her unforgettable apartment, and there’s an element of teen girl-ish devotion in her choice to fill a wall with a larger than life Billy Idol portrait. While she may act like a world weary siren, there’s a layer of vulnerability just below the surface. “I never thought I’d be this tired at 22,” she sighs, in a line potent enough to yield a whole article. By the film’s end, she attempts suicide by locking herself in her bedroom with the window wide open, hoping to freeze herself to death. She lives, of course. As Schumacher put it in a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “That part was satirical and tongue-in-cheek. She’s so fucking dramatic all the time… Do you know how long it takes to freeze yourself in a Georgetown apartment? She’s not in the Antarctic.”
The writer/director clearly had a sense of humor about things. His puckishness particularly shines through in a scene in which Leslie (Ally Sheedy) and Alec (Judd Nelson), a couple breaking up in the wake of an affair, fight over their shared record collection as Leslie prepares to move out. “You can have all the Billy Joels… except The Stranger,” Alec huffs. “I’m taking Thriller and Mahler’s ninth,” replies Leslie. The heated exchange goes on (“No Springsteen is leaving this house!”) as tensions build over something both materialist and deeply consequential. The argument is petty, yes, but it’s also poignant. These records are part of how these characters define themselves. They think they know it all, but adolescent impulses can still poke through, and in 2020 the thick layer of ’80s ephemera that coats every scene makes this tale of post-college coming-of-age feel something like escapism.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” is available to buy or rent via the usual platforms.