The Substance Of Fire

on March 14, 1997 by Kevin Courrier
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   Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin) is a publisher of serious books that place political concerns over commercial best-sellery. The trouble is, they don't sell. As a child in Paris during World War II, Geldhart watched the Nazis burn books, and his parents perished in the Holocaust, so he now refuses to bend to any form of economic expediency. When his son, Aaron ("Reckless'" Tony Goldwyn), an editor at the firm, tries to persuade him to buy a potential hot property to stave off bankruptcy, Isaac refuses, driving a wedge between him and all his children.
   Given the concerns of John Robin Baitz (adapting his play) and director Daniel Sullivan for the integrity of a solid dramatic story, their ideas don't make a lot of sense. Isaac's obsession with books is never developed beyond his witnessing their burning and, the way the material in the movie reads, you begin to think that Isaac nobly rejects trashy books because his publishing them might somehow bring back the Nazis. A man who reveres the printed word so much that he builds a publishing company designed to bring him economic ruin should be read as ironic folly. (Any astute publisher knows that bestsellers are often needed to support loftier projects.)
   Isaac's relationships with his children are also underdeveloped; the script doesn't tell us what they mean to their father. (We never even see him reading to them as children.) However, Sarah Jessica Parker is lovely as his rejected daughter, and Timothy Hutton, as his other son, a physically frail schoolteacher, is also emotionally affecting. Unfortunately, for all of its substance, "The Substance of Fire" never seems to be sure what it's about. Starring Ron Rifkin, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Hutton and Sarah Jessica Parker. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Written by Jon Robin Baitz. Produced by Jon Robin Baitz, Randy Finch and Ron Kastner. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 98 min. Screened at the Toronto fest
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