A character-driven drama with a deeply unpleasant central character, “The Substance of Fire” captures Ron Rifkin’s Obie-and Drama Desk award-winning performance as a tyrannical N.Y. publisher whose three grown children are a distant second in his affections after rare first editions. But what presumably was powerful in Jon Robin Baitz’s play has been diluted in opening it up for the screen. Miramax can expect to kindle interest with older and the-ater-savvy auds, but will face an uphill struggle to set the box office ablaze with this well-thesped but underwhelming venture.
Imperious Isaac Geldhart (Rifkin) runs the publishing firm founded by his late wife’s father. Although the venerable company is hemorrhaging money, Isaac is determined to publish a costly hand-bound four-volume encyclopedia of Nazi medical atrocities from the 5,000-page manuscript his peevish friend Louis has been working on for 34 years.
In a last-ditch effort to turn a profit, Isaac’s son Aaron (Tony Godwyn, on the money) tries to convince his father to publish a sought-after first novel written by Aaron’s boyfriend. Rigidly secure in his own elite taste, and proud of specializing in definitive tomes on off-putting subjects, Isaac dismisses his son’s proposal with utter contempt. This precipitates a disastrous showdown in which Aaron’s sister, Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and brother, Martin (Timothy Hutton), defy their father and sign over their shares, giving Aaron control of the company. In retaliation, Isaac starts his own imprint in other quarters and severs all contact with his children.
As Aaron’s company flourishes, Isaac’s flounders, and his dictatorial need to control leads to truly dysfunctional behavior. The three siblings have to decide how to handle the deteriorating mental state of a man who has never been able to express love or compassion.
Although the action is firmly anchored in well-to-do New York and boasts a visual texture that would not have been possible onstage, film version of Baitz’s much-praised play is as lukewarm as it is well intentioned. Pic — which marks the helming debut of three-time Tony nominee Daniel Sullivan — goes through all the motions with proper style and casting but is curiously devoid of emotional impact. The crucial theme of Isaac as a Holocaust survivor — insofar as his family perished, although he was never in a camp — is so underplayed as to be nearly invisible.
The role of the commanding, inflexible publisher was written to order for Rifkin, who inhabits his disagreeable character perfectly. But after a point there is nothing admirable in Isaac’s relentless search for excellence, making it difficult to care whether he digs his own grave or reconciles with his children. In a somewhat clumsily presented sequence of events, Isaac’s abrupt redemption via someone else’s equally abrupt sacrifice isn’t entirely satisfying.
Martin, whose Hodgkin’s disease is in remission, is a landscape architect and university professor whom Isaac calls a “flower-arranger.” Hutton plays him mellow and mysterious, but he’s such a cipher that it’s difficult to judge whether his gradual assertiveness represents personal growth or practical resignation.
Parker nicely reprises her stage role as the star of a peculiar educational TV show for children. As Aaron is the only major character whose motivations are clearly presented, Goldwyn’s perf has a clarity missing in his screen siblings. Ronny Graham, as Louis, is good in his irascible crankiness.
The unspoken tensions passed on to the children of Holocaust survivors is a rich and worthy subject, but its execution here is so diffuse as to leave many viewers baffled or indifferent.