Business of Strangers: Sundance Melodrama, Starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles

Sundance Film Fest 2001 (Dramatic Competition)–As a biting satire of the corporate world, The Business of Strangers, Patrick Stettner’s feature directorial debut, must have been inspired by Neil LaBute’s 1997 provocative expose, In the Company of Men.

Changing the gender of LaBute’s characters, Stettner contrasts two female execs, placed on opposite sides of the professional and economic spectrum, who find themselves temporarily on the same front after meeting a manipulative male headhunter.

Bravura performances by Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles are a major plus in a film that begins well, but then veers offtrack in its excessive sexual politics and unsatisfying ending. Theatrical prospects are iffy for an intelligent and engaging drama that in its modest scale may be better suited for the indie festival circuit.

The first reel is extremely effective in conveying the life of Julie Styron (Channing), a middle-aged career woman who spends a good deal of her time traveling and hence staying in luxurious but impersonal hotel suites. Losing her temper when Paula Murphy (Stiles), her novice technical assistant, is late for an important visual presentation, Julie fires her, unaware that her own position is in risk.

In a peculiar turn of events, Julie is promoted to CEO in her company, which relieves her from her perpetual anxiety and makes her realize that she doesn’t need anymore the services of Nick (Frederick Weller), a smooth and oily headhunter whom she had consulted in desperation.

In yet another bizarre turn of events, Julie reencounters Paula in an airport hotel bar when her flight is canceled. Elated with her new status and feeling guilty over her misconduct, Julie invites Paula to spend the evening with her in what becomes a long night’s journey into day. Competing on every level but age and appearance, the two women work out, go for a swim, and end up in a bar where Nick resurfaces all too conveniently.

Up to this point, the narrative is riveting, finding interesting ways to reveal important information about each woman’s background and psyche. Throughout their discussions and growing intimacy, there’s sexual tension that neither woman has the courage to act on. Their repressed sexuality and bottled emotions find a dubious outlet, when Paula tells Julie how Nick had raped her best friend while in college. As a remedy, Paula suggests to humiliate and torture Nick, at which point the narrative loses its credibility and turns into an hysterical saga of female revenge in extremis, with the women stripping and scrawling incriminating slogans all over Nick’s body, stopping just short of emasculating and ditching him.

As writer, Stettner commits the error of dumping too much on the young female, turning her from a believable and sympathetic heroine into white trash and possibly pathological liar. Also regrettably, women’s eternal dilemma of choosing between a fulfilling careers and rich personal and family life gets a schematic, overexplicit treatment that lags behind the zeitgeist. Female execs of Julie’s caliber are well aware of the continuously required struggles and sacrifices in order to make it in what’s still essentially a sexist milieu.

Even so, considering that the drama has only three characters, and that its locale is confined to cold and artificial surroundings, for long stretches The Business of Strangers is engaging in its dark humor and occasionally even thought-provoking.

The film was produced by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, co-directors of “Suture” and “The Deep End.”

Credits

Runing time: 84 Minutes

Pro co: i5 Films in association with Headquarters
Exec prods: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Prods: Susan A. Stover and Robert H. Nathan
Directed and written by Patrick Stettner
DoP: Theo Maniaci
Pro des: Dina Goldman
Ed: Keiko Deguchi
Music: Alexander Lasarenko
Main cast: Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller