Arts & Culture

Movie Review: Brats

Did that Brat Pack article really derail Andrew McCarthy's career?

There are certain phrases coined by magazine journalists that catch on and become part of the lexicon. Manic pixie dream girl, ginned up by film critic Nathan Rabin, is one such example (he now hates it, for what it’s worth). Nepo Babies is another one.

Brat Pack was certainly such a phrase. Created by New York magazine writer David Blum in 1985, it described a particular group of young, hot actors of the time who starred in such films as The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. In the article, which is available online, Blum talks mostly about Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Judd Nelson (whom he rather cruelly refers to as “The Overrated One.”) Others he identifies as Brat Packers: Tom Cruise, Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon (“The One Least Likely to Replace Marlon Brando”…bruh), Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn (“The Most Gifted of Them All”…well, at least he got that mostly right).

The story is dismissive of the talents of those actors, suggesting they cruised to fame thanks to connections and good looks. They aren’t serious actors, Blum basically says. They’re entitled brats.

Revisiting the story, it’s clear that it took on a life of its own well beyond the actual content. For example, no famous women are mentioned in the story, although now, routinely Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Demi Moore are considered Brat Packers. Also, and this came as a real surprise to me, Andrew McCarthy only gets a single mention in the story, albeit a damning one: “Of Andrew McCarthy, one of the New York–based actors in St. Elmo’s Fire, a co-star says, ‘He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don’t think he’ll make it.’” Ouch.

Maybe this is why McCarthy, an actor who was wildly popular when he was a dreamy, shaggy haired young man in the ’80s but who has only worked sporadically since, is so troubled by the article. He essentially sees it as the reason his career never took off—why he was terminally underestimated as an actor.

More than anyone else in the Pack, McCarthy just can’t shake the article. So he sets out to meet up with his fellow Brat Packers to see if they are similarly haunted.

The film Brats is the meta result of that quest, as we watch McCarthy, still slim and handsome, albeit a bit craggy now (he was 59 when the movie was shot), reach out to his old castmates, many of whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. He wants to dispel one myth right away: The members of the Brat Pack aren’t best friends, he says, never were, and only hung out when they were making movies together.

It’s humbling for McCarthy that not all his fellow Packers make themselves available to him. Molly Ringwald (my teen heroine) tells him (off camera) that she doesn’t want to look back, only forward. The enigmatic Judd Nelson is curiously MIA, hovering over the film like some sort of white whale. But many do.

Throughout the film, McCarthy flies out to LA (or wherever), rents a car, and rolls up to the house of his subject, a camera crew in tow. Of the Packers, he talks to Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, and Timothy Hutton, whom I was surprised to discover was mentioned so prominently in the original story. (Ominously, Blum notes that Hutton’s fellow Packers were whispering that he hadn’t had a hit since Taps.) McCarthy also talks to the “Brat-Pack adjacent” Leah Thompson and Jon Cryer, both delightful, by the way.

It’s interesting to see how relatively sanguine these actors are largely based on their post-Brat Pack success. As McCarthy wanders into an enormous, glass-enclosed compound, I said to nobody in particular, “That’s Demi’s house.” Indeed it was. She’s had more success than any of the Packers, especially if you don’t see Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn as part of the pack (I don’t).

She seems to laugh off the moniker and has mostly fond memories of the experience. Same with Rob Lowe, a man always comfortable in his own (gorgeous) skin, who admits to secretly liking the nickname. Ally Sheedy said that being part of the Brat Pack made her feel like she belonged to something. Estevez is the only one who shares McCarthy’s curdled view of the story.

The film feels very indulgent at times, inevitably so, with a fair amount of whinging and naval gazing from McCarthy and co. But it’s cat nip to Gen Xers like me who grew up enamored of the Brat Pack, who rushed out to see St. Elmo’s Fire on opening weekend. And McCarthy smartly expands his interview roster beyond just the actors to include cultural critics like Malcolm Gladwell, who talks about the Brat Pack as the product of the now obsolete monoculture, a time when young people were all consuming the same pop culture.

Of the actors, Lea Thompson proves to be the most thoughtful (TIL, she’s married to Howard Deutch, director of Pretty in Pink, also interviewed here.) She talks about the particular attachment Gen Xers had to movies; they were the first generation to be able to rent and buy videos, to take physical ownership of their own popular culture. She also observes that the Brat Pack were among the last vestiges of old Hollywood, when movie stars actually powered the films, not IP.

Watching Brats, the question remains: Is McCarthy right? Was the New York magazine article so uniquely inflammatory that it derailed many of the actors’ careers? On the one hand, the answer is clearly no. The truth is, pretty young actors become less pretty and less young and Hollywood moves on. It’s a tale as old as time. The fact that McCarthy fancied himself a serious actor—he did plays on Broadway and attended NYU before he was kicked out—adds to his sense of what could’ve been. But McCarthy was a good, never great actor—he had a weird tic, an unblinking thousand-yard stare that could be disconcerting (perhaps this was the “intensity” that anonymous Brat Packer was talking about).

On the other hand, hoo boy, that article was mean. It seemed to relish knocking the Brats down a peg, depicting them as clout-and-skirt-chasing narcissists. Brats’ climax is undoubtedly when McCarthy meets up with Blum in his small, Manhattan apartment. It turns out that “Hollywood’s Brat Pack,” was the defining article of Blum’s career and he admits it had an outsized effect on his life.

“You sound like a member of the Brat Pack,” McCarthy says, dryly.

They sit and talk, exchange perspectives—Blum feels like he was just doing his job as a journalist and remains proud of the story and the nickname it generated; McCarthy understands but still thinks Blum went too far. Later, Blum inadvertently reveals a hidden truth as talks about going out to dinner with Estevez, Lowe, and Hirsch back when he was writing the article. At the time, he was just a few years older than his subjects.

The girls swarmed around the table, he says. “But they ignored me.”

Brats is available to stream on Hulu.