Film and TV

Feud for Thought

Jon Robin Baitz's The Substance of Fire, produced on stage in New York and L.A. and now making its appearance as a movie distributed by the tastemakers at Miramax, is about another traumatized family struggling to work out its problems. In that, it sustains a dramatic tradition stretching from the instant Oedipus got the hots for Mom, on through poor Willy Loman's failure of self, to Diane Keaton's fatal cancer in Marvin's Room. Luckily, the possibilities are still not exhausted. Baitz's play-into-film is one of the most intelligent and provocative efforts of the year--a family-in-crisis saga that pits a guilt-ridden father against his three unhappy children in a crucible of pain and squandered love. It rarely resorts to soap opera.

In fact, Baitz and director Daniel Sullivan (who also oversaw the theatrical versions) don't seem particularly interested in attracting the daytime-TV crowd. For one thing, the troubled centerpiece of play and film is one Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), a stern, intellectual, wickedly witty New York book publisher--not exactly the kind of man you run across on As the World Turns. Isaac is still so burdened by being the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust (he spent the war hiding in an attic, surrounded by books) that he now refuses to publish anything but the unpublishable. His latest obsession is an exquisitely produced, hopelessly expensive, probably unreadable four-volume set on Nazi medical experiments, the life's work of a crusty old scholar (and camp survivor) who hangs around the office like a barnacle, barking and complaining.

We are just a comic turn or two away from Woody Allen land here, but playwright Baitz has graver intentions. A half-century of torment has stripped Isaac of the ability to love his children, and the death of his wife a year and a half earlier has robbed the family of its one source of balance. As the publishing house heads for ruin and their father descends into senility or madness (we're not sure which), the terrorized Geldhart children must finally confront the formidable, tragic patriarch--who has a few things in common with the tyrannical Mr. Helfgott from Shine. In his view, to look out for his welfare is to defy him, and sensitive issues of love and loyalty boil to the surface when Isaac refuses to publish a pop novel (written by his son Aaron's gay lover) that could save the farm. Actually, it's hard to argue with Isaac (the book is, as he says, "crapola"), but the dispute tears the family apart.

If admirers of high-toned domestic dramas from Long Day's Journey Into Night to Ordinary People are beginning to feel a familiar tug, there's more: Every self-respecting family tragedy requires a son or daughter with a potentially fatal disease, as well as a child who refuses to grow up. So Baitz gives the elder Geldhart son, landscape architect Martin (Timothy Hutton), a case of Hodgkin's that is now in remission, and he makes Sarah Geldhart (Sarah Jessica Parker) an unformed rebel who dresses in a clown costume to sing ditties on kiddie TV. As for Aaron (Tony Goldwyn), the gay outsider, he's the only kid foolish enough to be dragged into the book business by his father.

Can the Geldharts survive their worst instincts? Can they learn to love again? Baitz and Sullivan, who have never before made a film, make the questions even more interesting than the answers. Stage veteran Rifkin, for whom the playwright wrote the part of Isaac Geldhart, is simply magnificent as he takes the role he owned off-Broadway to the screen. Whether he's furiously ripping up a shipment of books that don't meet his impossible standard or verbally savaging one of his wayward children, Rifkin never fails to show us Isaac's twin demons--rage and sorrow. And in what might be the most moving scene in a film that is full of them, he sits in a chair staring, with a kind of cosmic wonder, at the artifact on which he has just spent $75,000 he doesn't have: an old brown postcard featuring a sketch by former Vienna art student Adolf Hitler. Baitz and Sullivan say they don't know much about moviemaking, but they certainly understand how a detail like this, captured in close-up, can empower an entire drama.

In the face of a character as dominant as Isaac and a performance as powerful as Rifkin's, it's hard for Parker, Hutton and Goldwyn to compete. But they manage. Amid the ruin of their family, Sarah, Martin and Aaron quietly try to pick up pieces of the past and carry on, even as their father imagines he's still dancing with his long-dead wife or mistakes the psychiatric social worker for the lady from Sotheby's, come to appraise a long-gone shelf of first editions once owned by Jack London. In the end of this heartfelt, beautifully crafted drama, there's an affirmation of sorts that feels hard-won and authentic. In these soap-opera days, no one can ask for more than that.

The Substance of Fire.
Screenplay by Jon Robin Baitz, from his play. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. With Ron Rifkin, Timothy Hutton, Tony Goldwyn and Sarah Jessica Parker.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo