Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Business of Strangers

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS

6/10

USA 2001 : Patrick Stettner : 84 mins

Debutant writer-director Stettner presents modern corporate America as a sexual-psychological battleground reversing In the Company of Men to show two women joining forces to humiliate a hapless male, while the real dynamic plays out in the volatile power relationship between the supposed allies.

Initially, fiftysomething Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) has the upper hand over the much younger Paula Murphy (Julia Stules): Paula is a mere technical assistant at the software firm of which Julie has just been made boss. But when delayed flights throw them together in the same faceless airport hotel, things take unexpected turns, especially when slimy corporate head-hunter Nick (Frederick Weller) turns up. Paula tells Julie that Nick raped a friend of hers at college and the pair decide that revenge is in order

Needless to say, all is not what it seems: from the outset, we suspect that some kind of Mamet-esque sting may be taking place, and the film does flirt around the edges of turning into a full-blown thriller when Nick is accidentally given a maybe-fatal overdose of sleeping tablets by Paula. But Stettner pulls back from taking the melodramatic option in favour of more psychological angles: Business of Strangers is produced by the two directors responsible for The Deep End, and both films test the mettle of their strong female central characters Deep End in the domestic arena, Business in terms of work.

Like The Deep Ends Tilda Swinton, Channing was mentioned as a possible Best Actress candidate for the 2001 Oscars but both lost out, perhaps because their films were a little too difficult, both a little undercooked in terms of drama, a little too cool And Business is definitely a small movie: a theatrical kind of talky two-hander, restricted to a handful of (interior) sets. Stettner restricts his directorial flourishes to a striking opening-titles sequence (youre not quite sure what youre seeing, or how far away it is) and an arty bit of slow-motion when Channing and Stiles are illuminated in a corridor by the lights of a passing aeroplane.

He sketches in Julies world as a functional, sterile succession of faceless hotels, airports, departure lounges, boardrooms. As in the Australian anti-corporate thriller The Bank, this corporate world is a harsh, unforgiving network of geometric grids, and while Julies promotion shows that it is possible for women to break through the professional glass ceiling, we see she must pay a disproportionate personal price. People like Julie are left with much less room to be themselves than the equivalent men which makes tiny details like the clock she carries around with her all the more vital and poignant. Its no accident that, when Paula and Julie force an uncomfortable Nick to watch a porn film in their hotel room, it turns out to be called One Size Fits All.

Ascent to the top of the corporate ladder can also produce some distorted perspectives – I can do anything I want, snaps Julie, twice, only for the goadings of the gleefully amoral provocateuse Paula to indicate otherwise. Its as if that, at what should be her moment of triumph, Julie summons up Paula as a personification of her doubts and insecurities. Theres no shortage of rough edges to Stettners ideas and his dialogue, but its easy to overlook them when he’s crafted such a great showcase role for an actress like Channing. Then again, who is like Stockard Channing these days, in terms of intelligence, daring, and depth of characterisation Allison Janney? Gena Rowlands? Genevieve Bujold, maybe? Its a very short list. And none of them, needless to say, have ever got their hands on an Oscar.

25th April 2002
(seen 24th April, UGC Middlesbrough)

by Neil Young