"St. Elmo's Fire" is about people who go to lunch and feel nostalgic for breakfast. The latest kiddie angst movie, it's thin gruel for introspective whelps.

A gang of friends, recently sprung from Georgetown U., are making their several ways into adult life. Alex (Judd Nelson), the leader of the group, works as a congressional aide; his longtime girlfriend Leslie (Ally Sheedy) is some sort of aspiring graphic designer. Jules (Demi Moore) is a banker, Wendy (Mare Winningham) a social worker. Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), a cub reporter, rooms with Kirbo (Emilio Estevez), who's working his way through law school as a waiter at St. Elmo's Bar, the gang's hangout. Billy (Rob Lowe), a wastrel, plays his sax there.

These aren't characters -- they're character hooks. The screenplay (by director Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander) gives each a "problem," and a solution to that problem: Jules snorts too much coke, Kirbo's in love, Alex cheats on Leslie. Instead of a narrative, A is simply connected to B, while the relentlessly mawkish "Terms of Endearment" piano score (by David Foster) punches pinholes in your brainpan. And while the movie was shot on location here in the District, Schumacher never evokes the place -- it might as well be Toronto.

As any amateur writer knows, the best substitute for a real story is a love triangle, and Schumacher and Kurlander pour 'em on. Jules thinks Kevin's in love with Alex but he's really in love with Leslie; Billy is married but Wendy, who is dating a zhlub her father found for her, loves him; Jules has something going with Billy, too.

"St. Elmo's Fire" has some nice performances. The fireplug Estevez is too short for the obsession he carries, so he's able to be intense and lampoon his intensity at the same time; Winningham and Sheedy have an easy appeal. McCarthy's work is too mannered by half, a relentless train of sidelong glances, nervous grins, and cigarette legerdemain, but he's still the most charming of the young actors. Moore gives a surprisingly emotional performance as a damaged young woman.

Nelson, on the other hand, is overstated and actorish as usual -- all pout and strut, his face contorting around what seems to be a sea anemone but purports to be his nose. He's supposed to be supercompetent, but he's not even in control of his own face. And if I never see another movie with Rob Lowe mooning over his own girlish looks it'll be too soon.

The point, though, is that none of these actors has a real character he can get into, so you can't judge them; the best you can say about these performances is that they're promising. These so-called "ensemble movies" are the death of young actors, because they're not ensemble movies at all; the kids are not working together, they're competing. These kids know that in five years, some will be stars and some will be answers in the Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit. So they all show off, acquire mannerisms, chew voraciously through their big monologues, in the hope that they will be noticed in the crowd.

Schumacher tells us that getting noticed is what the movie is all about. Through Lowe, we find out that St. Elmo's Fire was a light in the night sky that sailors would chart their course by, even though the light didn't point anywhere. So the histrionics and self-dramatization and role-playing are their version of St. Elmo's Fire, something the characters have made up to chart their course after the halcyon days of college are done. "They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep 'em going when things got tough," says Billy. Oh.