Friday December 6, 1996
the Holocaust invariably become a Holocaust Movie? It seems a natural process of attrition: The gravest aspect of a thing tends to overwhelm it, contain it, direct it, until the subordinate characteristics fall away like rain.
Is it the same with a man? That's the question--one of the questions--at the heart of "The Substance of Fire," Daniel Sullivan's adaptation of Jon Robin Baitz's play, in which the central character's accomplishment, intelligence, sophistication and sense fall victim to a Final Solution of guilt and memory.
Can Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), the owner of an upscale New York publishing house, preserve his company, his family, his self-respect, and remain true to his sense of guilty obligation? He sees himself as something less than a Holocaust survivor--the rest of his family died while he survived in an Anne Frank-ish garret--and has an obsession with Nazi ephemera. He is also stubborn, prideful, thoroughly offended by popular culture, and when given the choice of marketing what he thinks is trash or seeing his imprint go under, forges ahead with plans to put out a four-volume work on Nazi medical experiments.
His children--Aaron (Tony Goldwyn), who works with him; Martin (Timothy Hutton), a professor of landscape architecture at Vassar; and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), star of a "Sesame Street"-style TV show--balk. Aaron proposes they publish a trendy novel by his lover, Val (the always effective Gil Bellows), and is dismissed. Martin sides with Aaron, Sarah sides with Dad, then she sides with Aaron--they're not the swiftest group, and present one of the more unconvincing gene pools since "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
But as Isaac, Rifkin is simply transcendent, giving what is the most accomplished performance of the year. Re-creating the stage role that won him Obie and Drama Desk awards in New York (where the play was mounted at Playwrights Horizon and Lincoln Center before moving to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles), he makes Isaac exasperating, irritating, infuriating, endearing, but above all else noble, even when Isaac's mind begins to disintegrate. A 30-year veteran of stage and screen, Rifkin has seldom if ever been given this kind of opportunity. He responds by dissolving his other self completely, fully possessing the character and soul of Isaac Geldhart.
He does not, however, have a completely successful movie around him. Part of the problem is the play, the second act of which has apparently been rewritten, but which doesn't ultimately work. Motivations are unexplained, characters are less than defined. History--in a play that spins on history--is incomplete. How, for instance, did Isaac become such an affluent member of New York's literati with such a lack of business acumen? If his suicidal pursuit of excellence is solely based on the loss of his wife (played in flashback by Barbara Eda-Young), it might have been better explained. If his dismissal of Val's pop-noir novel is even partially based on the fact that Val and Aaron are lovers, that might have been explained as well. There are numerous reactions, outbursts and tantrums that are disconcertingly overblown and incongruous. Director Sullivan never fully removes the play from the stage and some of his cast seems to want to play to the cheap seats. With the exception of Rifkin's acting, subtlety goes wanting.
But Rifkin makes the experience more than worthwhile. He's the American Paul Scofield, the part that elevates the questionable whole, and gives "The Substance of Fire" the substance it has.
The Substance of Fire, 1996. R, for language. A Miramax Films release. Director Daniel Sullivan. Producers Jon Robin Baitz, Randy Finch, Ron Kastner. Screenplay by Baitz. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editor Pamela Martin. Costumes Jess Goldstein. Music Joseph Vitarelli. Production design John Lee Beatty. Art director Mark Ricker. Set Decorator Shelley Barclay. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Ron Rifkin as Isaac Geldhart. Tony Goldwyn as Aaron Geldhart. Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Geldhart. Timothy Hutton as Martin Geldhart. Ronny Graham as Louis Foukold. Elizabeth Franz as Miss Barzakian.