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The Business of Strangers (Patrick Stettner) 2001

Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles provide such a tag-team of acting goodness in The Business of Strangers, Patrick Stettner’s debut feature, that it’s a shame it’s not a better film. The film is essentially a battle of the sex as the two women, one young (Stiles’ Paula), one older (Channing’s Julie), vie off in a game of wits and manipulations. As they toy with each other by one-upping each other’s willingness to break out of their gender’s accepted roles and by alternating between cockiness and vulnerability, they seemingly manage to dig into such astute pain that it’s as if they’re holding their hands on a stove’s burners, decimating themselves to spite each other, while they wait to see which will pull away first. The gauntlet is never explicitly thrown down, but both are acutely aware that there’s a game at play, which makes the film all the more interesting. Both Channing and Stiles deliver very well executed performances, and it’s a good thing, since so much of the movie’s success hinges on them. 

The entire film takes place in about a twenty-four hour period, and like The Big Kahuna, it is set entirely during a business trip, and mostly in a hotel. Both films share a disdain for corporate culture, and you have to wonder where the films are for those who are happy with their jobs. The film’s decision to sympathize more with Julie is only a half-successful one. Surely, Channing turns in the better performance of the two, and the opening scenes in which she immediately scrambles to contact a headhunter, anticipating a pink slip after her boss requests her schedule, reveal a deep gully of vulnerability in her, but Stiles is the one with the more complex and inscrutable role. As vivid a creation as Julie is, we’ve seen this sort of career driven, self-sacrificing person before in films (most notably Faye Dunaway in Network). Paula is more of a cipher, and I would have liked to have better insight into what made her tick. Whether this is the actor’s fault or the screenplay’s is somewhat debatable, but I am leaning toward the latter. Despite some putting some exceptional dialogue in her mouth, the film never gives Paula enough motivation to drive her, so her character pales in comparison to Julie’s. As a result, the amount that Julie is allowed to learn from the situation is reduced, since neither her nor the script gain a complete understanding of Paula. Despite that thematic fuzziness, the film succeeds far more than it fails. There’s a rare intelligence in most of the scenes that lends weight to the film’s ample sense of humor. Stettner also proves himself an able director, evading much of the staginess that most similarly dialogue driven films succumb to. 


12 –10 – 01 

Jeremy Heilman