The Business of Strangers
Director: Patrick Stettner. Cast: Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller, Marcus Giamatti. Screenplay: Patrick Stettner.

It has become common parlance for critics and reviewers to refer to Patrick Stettner's debut feature as In the Company of Women, a means of contextualizing his film—and often implicitly derogating it—as a retread of Neil LaBute's 1997 In the Company of Men with the gender roles reversed. In other words, The Business of Strangers shows how women seek to annihilate one another by jointly annihilating a man. To some extent, this characterization is true, at least in terms of a skeleton plot. In the newer film, Stockard Channing plays Julie Styron, a hard-working corporate vice-president whose most recent out-of-town presentation gets botched when her A/V equipment doesn't arrive. When her young temporary assistant Paula (Julia Stiles) arrives 45 minutes late with the slides, or the software, or whatever, Julie promptly fires her and immediately—sprawled out in her hotel room—begins mourning the demise of her own career: news that her company's Board of Directors has convened in her absence immediately suggests to the fierce but surprisingly vulnerable Julie that she herself is about to be replaced.

Suddenly, though, the basic exposition details hastily recombine themselves: Julie is not fired, she is promoted to CEO; Paula, due to a cancelled flight, winds up back in Julie's hotel, leading to a re-encounter (inevitable), an apology and financial loan from the older woman to the younger (surprising), and a long evening of exercise, swimming, showering, and getting soused between the suddenly fast friends (more surprising). Of course, "fast friends" is putting the situation a little simply. It is not without a viperish edge when Paula asks Julie, as they sit in the gym sauna, "Is this what it's like to have a hot flash?" Nor is Julie only being a clueless adult when she offers awkward, vaguely indifferent replies to the little information Paula offers about herself: that she went to Dartmouth, that she enjoys watching porno movies ("It's fascinating to see how men view sex"), that she aspires to be a writer of "non-fiction stories" derived from real incidents in her life.

Because the movie's ambitions are ultimately both vague and fairly limited, its most interesting passage is almost certainly this half-hour in which Julie and Paula muster a one-night-only enthusiasm for each other, suppressing their most negative impressions (that Julie is hardened and pathetically lonely, that Paula is a privileged brat who can afford to feign a subversive attitude) and agreeing instead to collaborate in a tense night of mini-adventure with the vaguest aroma of eroticism. If someone is being seduced, it is frequently impossible to tell which character that might be.

When The Business of Strangers changes identities again—no longer a blunt allegory of the Establishment's cruelty toward the service class, nor a percolating peek at what two barely-introduced women might do with/for/to each other—it finally lunges toward the kind of Revenge Drama idiom reponsible for all those LaBute comparisons. Three new ingredients are introduced atop one another. First, the two women share an endless round of drinks in the hotel bar; as ever in Hollywood, alcohol becomes a convenient scapegoat for the more daring behavioral twists set to follow. Second, Nick (Fred Weller), a headhunter who Julie had hired when she felt her job in danger, joins her and Paula mid-party in a hotel bar, and seems eligible for a liaison with either. Third, Paula offers up the single intimate detail she ever shares with Julie: that four years ago, Nick raped her best friend when the two attended a frat party in Boston. Initially, Julie advocates "doing something about it," but Paula demurs; however, when Nick proves hard to evade, it is Paula who initiates the series of events that eventually leaves Nick drugged, naked, and near-dead on Julie's hotel room . . . and there's still a half-hour of the movie to go.

One assumes from a plot description such as this—the precise structure of titillation that the film needs to entice its viewers—that the movie's third act will be its most captivating. Sadly, in a parallel to Julie and Paula's fractious disagreement over what to do with/for/to Nick, The Business of Strangers seems dangerously unsure what to do with/for/to its viewers once we arrive. All over the place, the film manifestly withholds from us: writer-director Stettner allows us only one setting and, for the most part, only three characters; he sticks to an austere, Akerman-like regimen of long, symmetrical shots with a muted palette (the film looks like Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, a film which may have been an inspiration); and both music and ambient sound are kept to a minimum. It is, of course, unclear if either Julie or, more likely, Paula has more up her sleeve than dangerous fun, and these sorts of enigmas could feasibly sustain a motion picture, especially one that clocks in at only 93 minutes.

What crumbles the movie is the fact that once we do gain a little more insight about what's been going on, it is hard to match the motivations alleged in the dialogue to the actual facts of what has taken place in the narrative. The ample role of coincidence within Julie and Paula's early encounters either renders the climactic revelations improbable or else requires the view that at least one of the women is monumentally more psychotic than we have reason to believe. Even more surprising is that The Business of Strangers culminates in a string of close-ups where various characters look baffled, ruminative, lost in thought: it is the kind of movie that ends not with decisive, provocative action (as one might all along have suspected) but with gazes into space. Julie, or Paula, or Nick might as well have uttered, "I was never the same after that night...," and yet, the movie supplies such erratic characterization that it's possible to judge how anyone has changed.

If The Business of Strangers clunks as a whole, at leats several of its parts offer momentary pleasures. Thank goodness an actress with the steely, minimalist control of Stockard Channing plays the Julie role. Especially since the narrative often implies that Paula is manipulating her elder, Channing's commanding presence keeps the film from being totally imbalanced at Julie's expense: she is redoubtable. Julia Stiles is able enough in the Paula role, but she has a fuzzier character to play (again, even after things have been "cleared up"), and it would be nice to see her freed from playing so many scrappy young women whose hard edges are covering old wounds. If I am limited my commentary to the acting and screenwriting, you may draw the inference that The Business of Strangers is exactly the kind of film that places most or all of its eggs in those two baskets. Photography, editing, and sound are all increasingly simplified to divert our full attentions back on the central narrative; it is too bad, then, that the narrative isn't quite ready to make our acquaintance.

Indeed, the film is most interestingly read if one resists the stronger implications of the film's denouement and instead maintains that an earlier version of the characters' past history was, in fact, the "true" account—it is intriguing how little of the dialogue, especially Nick's last exchange with Julie, would change with the initial motivations in place. Stettner's error here, I think, is that he doesn't play up this potential ambiguity, even though he settles for so many other ambiguities that are notably less tantalizing. Are his hesitations derived from his tricky position as a male writer-director offering this story of women's private spaces? Does he feel his audience would question his authority to venture too far, to carry the scenario and its protagonists to further extremes? If so, or for whatever other reason, his film suffers for his reticence. Say this for Neil LaBute: In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors may well get heavy-handed, but given the nature of this group of films, the ultimate bashfulness of The Business of Strangers is less interesting crime. C


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