The Business of Strangers
Director Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers (2001) is a small, compact, pointed film that maintains a potent feeling of psychological suspense throughout. Heavily compared to Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, the movie contains similarities with that brilliant male manifesto of office politics in its depiction of women in somewhat similar circumstances. Both films have two very different (yet in some ways similar) genders messing with one member of the opposite sex to a disturbing, yet often morbidly funny, degree. Though Strangers isn't as witty as LaBute's scabrous take, Stettner (who also wrote the script) is on a different trip. This is a film about women, women in the male dominated workplace and their specific inner struggles within that environment, as well as their personal lives outside of it. But this isn't typical women stuff. Neither women are simply an über-bitch (like Sigourney Weaver in Mike Nichols' overrated Working Girl), nor is this a feminism-spouting pity party. With intelligence and depth, The Business of Strangers conveys the regrets, egoism, intelligence, and loneliness these women feel, thankfully through the fantastic pairing of Stockard Channing and an almost sociopathic Julia Stiles (who needs to do more work like this). Stiles stars as Paula Murphy, a new office temp who, flustered but not necessarily panicking, arrives late for an out-of-town business meeting. Treated like an insect, she is immediately fired is by her new boss, Julie Styron (Channing), who stands in front of Paula, calls the main office, and sacks her via cell phone (she doesn't even bother to look at her). At first it appears that Julie is as evil corporate tool, but much, much more develops. Soon after she fires Paula, Julie is promoted to CEO. However, while at a bar celebrating, she sees Paula from across the room and concedes to some goodwill. Julie apologizes, to which Paula coolly says, "I don't care" and "I'm a writer anyway." This is no withering wallflower. Educated at Dartmouth (which Paula snootily calls "Dart-mouth"), she's spoiled, a bit pretentious with her artistic leanings (published in literary magazines and such), and clearly not afraid of Julie. But after knocking back some drinks, the women begin to bond and Julie sets Paula up in a hotel room so she doesn't have to sleep in the airport. They work out together, go swimming, and play a funny joke in an elevator packed with men (involving an argument over a strap-on dildo). But things gets worse when Julie's associate, the slick corporate headhunter Nick (Fred Weller), finds them in the bar. Once he enters the picture, all their talk of control, sexuality, and goals is realized in an act that's best described as an exorcism of deep rage and mystery. And as we begin to figure each woman out, we're neither rooting for them nor damming them. The Business of Strangers actually lays out questions it can't necessarily answer, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions as to what makes these women tick. Though some may find it talky or too much like a stage play, it's nonetheless a fascinating character study and a refreshing take on women who must take responsibility for their own actions. MGM's DVD release offers pristine transfers in both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1), nicely enhancing the film's antiseptic, blue-tinted cinematography that is occasionally met with some warm, orange-ish hues. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.0, and English and Spanish subtitles are on board. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.