***/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller
written and directed by Patrick Stettner
by Walter Chaw Julie (Stockard Channing) is a hardened businesswoman on a lecture trip who becomes certain that her last day on the job draws nigh. When young Paula (Julia Stiles) arrives to a presentation late, Julie unleashes all her fears and frustrations on the hapless girl. Written with an ear for dialogue and a wicked edge, Julie's enthusiastic upbraiding of Paula sets the stage for three elements that drive The Business of Strangers to its conclusion. The first is the discomfort arising from Julie and Paula being stuck in the same hotel overnight due to grounded flights, the second is a possible explanation of the antagonism between the pair that culminates in a disturbingly open-ended finale, and the final is the idea that in Stettner's interpersonal corporate nightmare, fear is the mechanism that catalyzes the characters towards generosity, friendship, and cruelty.
When Julie discovers that her premonitions of impending termination are unfounded (she receives a coveted promotion), her celebration, like her ire, focuses on the nearest and only available target: Paula. Over a night of gamesmanship, the title of the film is examined in shifting power dynamics between a woman who has spent her professional life subsuming her femininity for power in a traditionally masculine arena and the girl who has spent her life exploiting femininity to the same ends. Paula and Julie encounter Nick (Fred Weller) and visit the aggregate of their humiliations on the hapless mark looking for a good time. Stettner highlights the difference between Paula and Julie's modes of adaptation in a fantastic sequence in which Paula hijacks the male's prurient interest in hot lesbian action and Julie, ever the political chameleon, falls right in step. The one a predator, the other a survivor; the true strength of The Business of Strangers is that its characters are ever faithful to their personal methodology and character attributes, even when the story takes an uneasy turn into the sadistic.
Any independent film that deals with gender politics, sadism, and acerbic patter will be compared to Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, and The Business of Strangers is no different. Although there are certainly some surface similarities in Stettner's piece to LaBute's film, I am far more comfortable in the comparison of Business to Fred Schepisi's adaptation of the John Guare play Six Degrees of Separation. Besides sharing Stockard Channing, both movies are interested in the fustian bonds of interpersonal relationship and identity and the connection of a surrogate mother to an inappropriate ward. More importantly, The Business of Strangers doesn't betray the same kind of misanthropy as LaBute's danse macabres. Instead, it has a genuine sympathy for its woman characters, whose trials have left each a stranger to herself.
Stettner's The Business of Strangers is an assured debut from a gifted screenwriter and visual director. The images, both thematic and literal, are smooth and confident; the film does so many things well that moments of over-theatricality and Stiles's trademark inability to convey much beyond a lips-slightly-parted outrage are ameliorated to a great extent. Nick's somewhat pacific reaction to an enigmatic and traumatic event is more unfortunate (though perhaps ultimately more thought-provoking); mercifully, The Business of Strangers avoids trying to make a statement about all of womankind (or mankind, for that matter), content with telling a small story that has wider-ranging implications. In that focus on character over moralizing, The Business of Strangers sets itself up to be perceived as less than the contemplation of its stickier moments in the hours and days following an initial viewing eventually reveals it to be.
Beginning with an airplane landing and ending with another taking off, Patrick Stettner's sterling feature-length hyphenate debut boasts of a surprising maturity both in terms of its narrative completeness and the consistency of its photographic compositions. The Business of Strangers navigates the rough waters of gender and business on the back of rapier-sharp dialogue and Stettner's carefully modulated eye. Essentially a densely plotted three-character drama that seems tailor-made for the stage, it finds a good deal of subtlety and eloquence in its evocative architectural set design, blocking, and usage of elemental colour. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Channing turn in a showcase performance that is multi-layered, understated, and possibly the best of her career. Originally published: October 17, 2001.
by Bill Chambers MGM's DVD release of The Business of Strangers offers the film in slick 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and unmatted presentations on the same side of a dual-layered disc. Closing and occasional shots dance with noisy grain but otherwise the transfer is on the money, with even fleshtones and crisp contrast. A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix does not do much for the proceedings beyond a tiny bit of bass during plane take-offs; Alexander Lasarenko's Thomas Newman-esque score sounds pleasant if not altogether expansive. There are no extras besides a trailer that, oddly, offers widescreen and fullscreen options but freezes the DVD if you so choose to view it in widescreen. My guess is that there's only one trailer to start with and this is a programming error. Originally published: August 10, 2002.