The Substance of Fire (1996)

Sarah Jessica Parker, with scruples


What little this film has to do with its horribly opaque title stems from the opening scene, in which a young Jewish boy named Isaac is led away from a stack of burning books in Nazi Germany. Upon settling in the States and marrying into a pile of book money, Isaac takes over his deceased wife's publishing house and attempts to run it into the ground by putting out only dense, hardbound Holocaust encyclopedias.

Dejected by his father's stubborn refusal to put out a lusty prospective best seller penned by his boyfriend, Isaac's fruity accountant-son Tony (Ghost) Goldwyn marshals his shareholding siblings (Timothy Hutton and Sarah Jessica Parker) to seize control of the publishing house from Isaac, who stammers off and starts a splinter imprint that he swiftly bleeds dry.

Throughout the movie, Isaac's children suggest to their father that he has been subconsciously suicidal since his wife's demise. But any exploration of this notion is run off the road when Isaac is conveniently given early-stage Alzheimer's to deal with, while Timothy Hutton's character has a recurrence of his childhood Hodgkin's, which in turn kills him.

These overly melodramatic plot turns -- when in doubt, ratchet up the disease quotient -- sabotage what is otherwise a well-acted film. Particularly good is Parker, whose decision to whore it up in the dreadful Sex and the City gave a serious actress the sort of tabloid fame that makes people question her seriousness as an actress. Heck, she even has a fragrance now. 'Tis a pity.

Each week the author treks to the Schlafly branch of the St. Louis Public Library, where a staff member blindfolds him and escorts him to the movie shelves. After selecting a film at random, Seely checks it out and reviews it.