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Brat Packers Reckon With Their Legacy in Andrew McCarthy's Poignant Doc

The actor-director confronts the whole concept of the Brat Pack head-on, while maybe learning to love it.
  • Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in Brats (Photo: ABC News Studios)
    Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in Brats (Photo: ABC News Studios)

    As the 1970s gave way to the ’80s, American show business was dominated by Baby Boomers who’d lived through the era of Vietnam War protests and social change. They’d led movements in music, cinema and television in reaction to and rejection of their parent’s generation. Then the Reagan era hit, and a wave of entertainers and audiences who’d missed the revolution fought to establish their own place and tell their own stories.

    For a while in the mid-’80s, they did just that. A group of promising actors, many of whom worked repeatedly with the writer-director John Hughes (a Boomer, but young at heart) dominated at the box office and the video store. It looked like they were going to be the Hollywood stars for the next decade-plus.

    Then a New York magazine cover story by David Blum dubbed these wannabes “the Brat Pack” — riffing on Frank Sinatra’s hip early ’60s celebrity buddies “the Rat Pack.” The article took shots at these kids for being fame-obsessed partiers, not serious actors. Almost overnight, their golden age ended.

    Or at least that’s the thesis of Brats, an alternately insightful, moving, and awkward documentary directed by Andrew McCarthy, a Brat Packer using his film as a kind of confessional therapy. Having spent the past 30 or so years trying to shed a label that he thinks derailed a once-promising career, McCarthy has now decided to confront the whole concept of the Brat Pack head-on — and maybe even learn to love it.

    Brats is structured like a mini-odyssey, set all around the U.S., wherever the Brat Packers have settled. After providing a little historical context for the rise and fall of his peers, McCarthy films himself calling up the actors most associated with him: Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, and Judd Nelson. That's the cast of the 1985 film St. Elmo’s Fire (a peak Brat Pack moment) plus Ringwald, who starred with McCarthy in Pretty in Pink and with three of the Elmo-ers in The Breakfast Club.

    Although these actors barely know each other outside of having worked together on a couple of movies, they’ve been lumped together ever since. So, McCarthy has a simple request: Can he come over and talk about their memories and feelings? On camera?

    Brats is anchored by the Brat Pack interviews McCarthy was able to land. (No spoilers, but he doesn’t get all of them.) He fills out the rest of the running time with conversations with pop culture historians and Brat Pack adjacent actors like Lea Thompson, Jon Cryer, and Timothy Hutton. He also makes some detours to speak with famous writers and trend-spotters Malcolm Gladwell and Bret Easton Ellis — though for some reason, the latter doesn’t talk about his own generation of ’80s authors, often dubbed “the literary Brat Pack.” (Ellis does talk about how much he loved The Breakfast Club. And while praising Pretty in Pink, Gladwell admits he always thought of himself as more of a Duckie than a Blane.)

    McCarthy is, thank goodness, good company. He’s charmingly self-deprecating, warm-hearted, and funny; and his deep-rooted need to understand just what the hell happened in his life 30 years ago is highly relatable. He’s dogged in his search for answers, which ultimately leads at the end of Brats to him having a tense but cathartic interview with Blum, the reporter whose article so profoundly changed McCarthy’s life.

    What keeps Brats from being a purely breezy delight is that McCarthy has so many pent-up thoughts about the Brat Pack phenomenon that he tends to talk way more than the people he’s interviewing. Estevez barely gets to say much of anything during their meet-up. (To be fair, he also seems to be the most reluctant of McCarthy’s old colleagues to revisit the past.) Sheedy becomes almost like McCarthy’s therapist, helping him reframe his ’80s experiences as something positive. It’s really only Lowe who can match McCarthy’s loquaciousness, as they reminisce about the time they met Liza Minnelli at Spago and she invited them to come hang out at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house.

    Still, it’s useful to get these Brat Packers’ perspectives on the immediate and ongoing ripple effects of Blum’s piece. Estevez says he effectively killed a movie he was supposed to make with McCarthy because he didn’t want the Brat Pack baggage that would come with it. Sheedy talks about how the joy she felt at finding peers in Hollywood was yanked away from her and turned into something she was supposed to find embarrassing. Cryer is seen in an old video from the mid-’80s being interviewed about the Brat Pack and denying he’s a member. It was like the media and the older showbiz establishment had been waiting eagerly for the chance to knock these new stars down; and as soon as the New York story ran, they hit hard and fast.

    That backlash particularly stung McCarthy, who already felt like an outsider because he was from New York instead of California, and who — clouded by substance abuse and self-doubt — secretly worried that his critics had a point. Even as he’s using this documentary to help soften his bitterness, McCarthy can’t help but wonder somewhat ruefully why the young actors who immediately preceded the Brat Packers — like Hutton, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise — didn’t get saddled with a stupid label.

    Is it a bit self-indulgent of McCarthy to turn his old grudges into a movie? Yeah, of course. But for the fans who watched Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club over and over on videotape, there’s something touchingly human about seeing one of the era’s stars wrestle with his conflicted feelings about the whole experience.

    On the one hand, McCarthy can recognize and appreciate now that he was a part of something that is — from the outside — remembered fondly by millions. St. Elmo’s Fire provided a model for the “nice-looking young people hanging out while starting their adult lives” premise that has since been the foundation of multiple hit sitcoms. Those ’80s movies have endured.

    But it’s telling that McCarthy can’t quite go all the way into a sappily sentimental “let bygones be bygones” mode. Even in his air-clearing interview with Blum, he lets the writer know that the hatchet isn’t entirely buried. As they shake hands and get ready to depart, McCarthy asks Blum one last time — smiling, but deadly serious — “Do you think you could’ve been nicer?”

    Brats premieres June 13 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the doc in our forums.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Brats, Hulu, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise