THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS
written and directed by Patrick Stettner with Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, and Frederick Weller opens Dec. 14 at Harvard Exit
THE FAINT ODOR you detect beneath the armpits of that crisply tailored suit is fear. You wouldn't know it to look at a high-powered businesswoman striding purposefully through the airport, but the Mamet-like musk of desperation lurks beneath the silk. Estrogen is just as rank as testosterone in this Sundance darling (dubbed "In the Company of Women" by festival wags, although not as good). The Neil LaBute reference is apt, too, because big-screen depictions of fierce feminine competition—as opposed to male pissing contests—are shocking precisely because of their scarcity. (Have 51 years really passed since All About Eve?)
In LaBute's 1997 Men, you'll recall, two heartless yuppies torment a deaf woman co-worker just for kicks. It's an astonishingly mean film, yet in The Business of Strangers such cruelty is further complicated by the reversal of sexes—not only are the perpetrators women, but the guy really seems to deserve his mistreatment. The victim here is some poor schmuck (Frederick Weller) accused of a crime by Paula (O's Julia Stiles), a junior colleague of software company vice president Julie (The West Wing's Stockard Channing), who comes close to firing her young AV tech early in the course of an extraordinarily eventful overnight business trip, then later starts to bond with the truculent, tattooed rebel.
Without divulging the lies, surprises, and twists that lead these two unlikely cohorts in crime to an empty hotel construction area, let's just say that the resulting frenzy of anger and revenge has its roots in the antagonism and gamesmanship (gameswomanship?) that immediately arises between Julie and Paula. Each has got something to prove to the other, especially coming from such disparate backgrounds. On the menopausal cusp (or past) of being 50-something, Julie's husbandless, childless, and alone, relying on her secretary and therapist (by phone) and Zoloft and Valium (by prescription) to endure the pressure of sales calls and corporate life. Fresh out of Dartmouth, pointedly declaring herself to be a nonfiction writer, privileged Paula scoffs at her own short-term gig: "This is just a money job." In other words, it's not a career, for which up-from-nothing Julie has sacrificed much to achieve.
THE TRADE-OFF between career and personal freedom is poignant for Julie (who might've wanted a family), contemptible to Paula. The implicit irony to Strangers, reflecting much postfeminist debate, is how Paula—who's young enough to be Julie's daughter—takes for granted, then abuses, what Julie's generation struggled to earn. Deriding Julie as "the duchess," Paula tantalizes her boss with the sort of bad-girl behavior not allowed in the executive suite. Quite possibly a sociopath, she arouses feelings both maternal and maybe even sexual in the lonely Paula. Making a virtue of low-budget economy, Patrick Stettner uses the empty, antiseptic corridors of Julie's hermetic airport-hotel-office world to evoke both her isolation and her longing for Paula's fuck-it-all spirit of rebellion.
Meanwhile, Julie's getting dangerous signals from the home office, raising worries about her job. All that effort, "working like a dog, year after year," and she's about to get the sack? Paula comes along at exactly the right (wrong) time, inflaming Julie's bitterness and probing her vulnerabilities with almost writerly precision. Perhaps it's just short story material for Paula, but her carefully constructed prank could have career-ending consequences. Divulging few of her own motives (jealousy? envy? resentment?), she maliciously threatens to destroy Julie, who confesses, "Take away this job, I dunno what you've got." Whose mask will slip first? And what's behind it?
Here it must be acknowledged that Stettner's feature debut is little more than a filmed play, a three-hander with about four locations staged in a tight 83 minutes. Generally such fare is better suited to off-Broadway or TV, but Business is finally an exception to that rule. In a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, Channing's Julie may not have the showbiz brass of Eve's Margo Channing, but she's just as much a hardened survivor.