Picks and Pans Review: The Substance of Fire

updated 12/16/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ron Rifkin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Timothy Hutton, Tony Goldwyn

The chief interest in this movie of Jon Robin Baitz's 1991 play is the chance to see Rifkin re-create a role that earned him lavish praise in the original Off-Broadway production. Rifkin, as a New York City publisher who survived the Holocaust as a boy, passes up manuscripts of surefire bestsellers and instead funnels the family business's dwindling finances into a resolutely uncommercial history of Nazi medical experiments. His well-meaning children (Parker, Hut-ton and Goldwyn) are frustrated by their father's imperious recklessness and, finally, are forced to take control of the company in an effort to save it. Rifkin, deprived of his one great love, quietly falls apart until he can scarcely care for himself.

Rifkin's is a fine performance, understated and meticulous, but the rest of the movie, which is merely flat, does not serve him well. He is upstaged by Elizabeth Franz, in a small role as his loyal secretary, a reserved, exquisitely groomed woman. When Rifkin, having broken with his children, turns his fury on Franz instead, she falls with all the ladylike grace she can muster. (R)

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