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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

The Business of Strangers
Reviewed by Carla Freccero


Now playing at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, The Business of Strangers stars Stockard Channing as corporate executive Julie Styron and Julia Stiles as Paula Murphy, her temporary assistant. First-time director Patrick Stettner also wrote the script, and it is as intelligent and spare as a well-crafted play. Supposedly shot in a mere three weeks, the film is beautifully paced and tells an absorbing, if very strange, story. Julie, believing she is about to be fired because the CEO of her corporation is flying out to meet her for dinner, gives a presentation at corporate headquarters without visual aids because the assistant who’s been hired for her, Paula, is late. She fires the assistant, meets with her headhunter, Nick (played with just the right amount of overstatement by Fred Weller), has dinner with the CEO, who delivers some unexpected news, and winds up at the hotel bar running into Paula again, whose flight leaves the next morning.  The two women begin a tense game of one-upsmanship that includes exercise, heavy drinking, and, eventually, a bizarre seduction.  In the course of things, they seem to become friends and to care for each other, even as they strive to prove just how tough, invulnerable, and dangerous they are to each other.

As visually mismatched as two people can be, these actresses nevertheless seem to work well off each other. Each is enormously talented, and both succeed in convincing the audience that they are tough and ruthless on the outside while being supremely fragile on the inside.  Channing perhaps lacks some of the confidence—and a lot of the suspicion--one would expect to find in a female CEO, while Stiles seems just a tad too confused to be as skilled a grifter as her character apparently is.  But the tango they do together is riveting and convincing, both visually and verbally.  One might call this an exploration of the emotional costs of power and wealth, but the movie stops seriously short of such moralizing, even as it sets us up to try to draw that conclusion.  In fact, every time we decide we know where this story is going, there’s another small twist and we find that we, like Julie, have been grifted.  Or has she?  Whether or not there’s any authenticity in the mysterious young Paula, her presence enables Julie to find the inner life she has lost while concentrating all her efforts on scrambling to the top.  And although Paula’s lie puts the headhunter Nick through a pretty hairy nighttime experience, no serious harm gets done, and Nick—or, perhaps, the movie suggests, all men in this vicious world of corporate power-brokering—is just sleazy enough to deserve what he gets.

I’m being coy about this plot, but it’s of necessity—surprise is crucial, as are the anxiety and tension that accompany the all-night rampage these women indulge in.  In the end, everything is more or less alright, and what we’re left with is a bunch of questions about power, gender, rage, and what is or is not possible to share with others, particularly among women.  And if the masculine touch in this film can be felt, it may be in Julie’s willingness to be duped because of the spell the mysterious Paula casts; I think a woman making this movie would not have made her so easily intrigued by someone who, most of the time, seems like the privileged spoiled brat Julie accuses her of being.  Nevertheless, Stettner has done a fabulous and marvelously sensitive job of portraying, without condescension, two women deformed by the patriarchal constraints that inform their lives, locked in a power struggle involving age, class, wealth, power, strength and, ultimately, mutual appreciation.  

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001