BUSINESS OF STRANGERS, THE (director/writer: Patrick Stettner; cinematographer: Teodoro Maniaci; editor: Keiko Deguchi; music: Alexander Lasarenko; cast: Stockard Channing (Julie Styron), Julia Stiles (Paula Murphy), Frederick Weller (Nick Harris); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert H. Nathan/Susan A. Stover; IFC Films; 2001)
“Channing gives a marvelously chilling performance, and makes her troubled haughty character a tragic figure that we can sympathize with when we see how vulnerable she is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The feature debut of writer-director Patrick Stettner is an intense psychological drama that takes us into the corporate world and gives us a bird’s eye view of a tough middle-aged woman executive, Julie Styron (Stockard Channing), who successfully climbed the corporate ladder. It does for the distaff side what Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men did for the men, as it rolls in comeuppances, mindfucks and for its centerpiece has some nasty business take place among those who work together. It only lacks the same power in its punch as the LaBute film, but makes up for it by presenting the rarely done women’s version of corporate life.

It opens with Julie, the high-powered VP of an unnamed company, arriving by plane to attend an out-of-town business conference with potential clients in an unnamed city. They disappoint the competitive lady when they reject her proposal. A stressed-out Julie blames the new technical assistant, Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles), who arrives 45 minutes late and does not present the expected audio-visuals. Julie fires her on the spot. Later while at her comfortable but sterile airport hotel, Julie meets with headhunter Nick Harris (Frederick Weller) to ask if her job is in danger as she learns the big boss is flying in to meet with her. The slippery Nick assures her that’s not the case. Over dinner the big cheese gives her the word that she’s been promoted to CEO, replacing him as he leaves the firm. The good news doesn’t seem to make the lonely divorced woman happy. In the hotel lounge she tries to apologize to the bitter Paula, after accidentally runing into her, by telling her she changed her mind about the firing. Anxious to celebrate, but unable to contact her secretary–her only friend–she takes Paula along for company as they enjoy the hotel’s amenities by swimming and drinking Scotch. At the lounge she meets Nick again and Paula reveals he raped her girlfriend four years ago in Boston when she was in college (Paula later reveals that she was the victim). Who knows what to make of it? The headhunter is shifty and Paula is a manipulative bitch. With her guard down and her repressed man-hating side surfacing Julie, against her better judgment, goes along with the obnoxious Paula’s scheme to get even by teaching him a lesson. When Nick joins the ladies for drinks in Julie’s suite, Paula spikes his drinks with Valium taken from Julie’s medicine cabinet and he passes out. Not wanting him found in her room, the ladies drag Nick’s body to the closed lounge and scrawl obscenities over his body.

It’s left as an examination over such things as a generational power struggle between the ladies, possible sexual innuendos between them, and a chance to see what went wrong with each of their lives, as both are unhappy and can’t seem to help in what directions their life has taken them. In this surface character study, the younger tattooed combatant, an aspiring writer of non-fiction, gets to her bosses insecurities and seems to have the psychological edge while both are drinking. But in the morning, the once again sober and rational Julie, the already winner and loser of last evening’s two big battles, regains her composure and prepares to catch a flight that will take her back into her psychologically risk-free artificial claustrophobic corporate world–where she’s married to the job and asks herself, “What would I be without my job?” Paula also prepares to take a departing flight, but her future is enigmatic. We are left wondering if she’s a traumatized rape victim, a sociopath, or just a hard-edged bitch with issues and a twisted imagination. A deranged Paula is not as interesting as the acerbic truth teller we first meet, who is not bound by ambition or convention. But Paula’s characterization wasn’t something that moved me and thereby the ambiguity surrounding her story didn’t disturb me, as I had no desire to learn more about her. What’s positive is that Stettner’s intelligent script overcomes his less assured filmmaking and the story always had me tuned into it. Channing gives a marvelously chilling performance, and makes her troubled haughty character a tragic figure that we can sympathize with when we see how vulnerable she is.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”