The Substance of Fire (May 14/01)
Like most films based on plays, The Substance of Fire features a small group of characters involved in a plotless situation, saying a lot of things nobody would ever say in real life. But the difference is, where most of those movies are unreasonably arty, The Substance of Fire is (at it's core) a character study. And when you've got actors as good as these people are, it works.
Starring Ron Rifkin as a Holocaust survivor, The Substance of Fire chronicles his slow decent into madness. This isn't one of those Beethoven-esque journeys into insanity; rather, Rifkin winds up succumbing to old age (at least, that's what the movie would have us believe, but it's never really spelled out). Rifkin is the head of a very prestigious book publisher that's rapidly losing money. A quick solution is to print a sure-fire success by a hot young writer, but, much to the chagrin of his son and co-worker (played by Tony Goldwyn), he'll have none of it. He wants to publish a four-part look at the Holocaust. This book would almost certainly make no money and would inevitably lead to the bankruptcy of the company. His two other children, played by Sarah Jessica Parker and Timothy Hutton, wind up giving their share of the business to Goldwyn, which leaves Rifkin out of the picture. He starts his own company and soon makes publishing the Holocaust book his only priority. A priority that winds up (literally) driving him insane.
The Substance of Fire is essentially a plotless affair. The initial setup is established and the characters become the focus of the film. The actors are all fantastic in their roles, especially Rifkin. This is a guy that basically has to be a jerk throughout the running time, yet still come off as sympathetic when he begins to lose his mind. Rifkin's uneasy balance of steely-eyed ass-kicker and gentle father works, and this is likely the performance of his career. The others are fine - particularly Goldwyn, who's playing a non-weasel for the first time since...well, I don't know if he's ever played a non-weasel - but this is Rifkin's show.
Mostly, the dialogue is quite good, though it is expectedly pompous. Unless you're dealing with a Neil Simon play, it seems to be par for the course that the characters will all speak as though they've attended finishing schools and participated in Dorothy Parker-esque round tables. But at least here, it feels natural (unlike something like The House of Yes, which just came off as stilted and over-the-top). And the denouement, while obviously intended to tug heart-strings, is genuinely affecting, without being cloying. Again, this is mostly due to Rifkin's restrained, stellar performance.
I can't say enough positive things about Rifkin. He is the reason to watch The Substance of Fire.