PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Julie (Stockard Channing) is good at her job. She’s spent years climbing the corporate ladder, equally adept at making faultless presentations and schmoozing with assholes. And yet, Julie remains unsure of herself. When, en route to an important pitch meeting, she learns that her boss is flying in for an unscheduled one-on-one, she imagines that she’s about to be fired.
During the first few minutes of Patrick Stettner’s The Business of Strangers, you learn a lot about Julie. She’s on the move, traveling first class, but everywhere she goes looks the same; all the restaurants, boardrooms, and hotel suites feature the same bland décor. As Julie click-clicks through a starkly white airport, Teodoro Maniaci’s camera tracks behind her, then moves around to reveal her game face: prepared and in control. The problem is, she can never be sure just what she’s prepared for and in control of, but that is the precise nature of her business, which is characterized by treachery and tension.
Indeed, minutes after Julie’s in-charge intro, things start to go wrong. She can’t get any detailed info on this upcoming meeting with the boss, then her Big Presentation goes badly because her new assistant, Paula (Julia Stiles), arrives 45 minutes late, crucial power-point equipment in tow. When Julie snipes at Paula, the girl comes back with her own declaration of war: Julie is an “uberfrau,” too uptight and merciless. As if to prove the point, Julie takes aim the best way she knows how: in a fit of frustration and fear, she fires the girl.
After this multi-layered disaster, everything changes again: the meeting with the boss, in a sterile airport café, results in Julie’s promotion to CEO. That she has misinterpreted the situation so colossally probably says less about Julie than the unreadably brutal business world she inhabits, but still, it sets her up for what follows, namely, Paula’s increasingly complicated vengeance plot, which seems part ferocious spite, part meticulous calculation, and part arty concoction designed to show off acting chops. But while The Business of Strangers does make some room for Channing and Stiles to stretch out, its basic premise—the meanness of the business of strangers—is worn-out.
Still, the plot itself isn’t wholly predictable: when the women meet again in the hotel bar, they bond over a few drinks and their shared anger at being pawns in a men’s game, then exorcise their fury against a smarmy headhunter, Nick (Frederick Weller). But Julie and Paula don’t have that much to say to one another: locked in mutual melodrama, they eventually reveal self-incriminating and self-destructive bitterness. Julie is burdened with the usual motives for her meanness—she’s divorced, childless (she didn’t want them, which apparently marks her as un-warm, or perhaps un-generous, in the film’s emotional economy), hard-drinking, and, no surprise, lonely. Paula, still young and rebellious (at least in her own mind), isn’t quite so immersed in corporate culture, but she’s a natural, both enraged and wily enough to hold her own against anyone in that environment.
Full of as-yet unfocused cruelty, Paula becomes an object lesson for Julie, who is, in the midst of her supposed triumph, looking for a reason not to live the life she’s living. Or, more precisely, she’s looking for a way to test herself, now that she’s found her own judgment to be so disastrously defective. Coming across Paula later that evening in the hotel bar, Julie feels guilty and buys her a drink, then offers to put Paula up in the hotel with her company card. On their way down to the pool in the elevator, the women find themselves surrounded by men in suits: Paula starts a game, apologizing to Julie for… “you know.” As the guys eye them, Paula sighs, “I just wasn’t in the mood.” Julie takes the challenge, suggesting Paula’s racist because she was afraid of the black dildo. Ding: arriving at their floor, the women exit, pleased that they’ve so easily titillated these foolish men.
From here, the movie traces their bonding process: they drink together in the hotel bar with a series of anonymous men, until Paula, absent briefly for an unsatisfying make-out session with some finesse-less creep, returns to their table to find Julie flirting with Nick. Here the movie abandons potential complexities for stereotypes. Paula might be jealous of Julie or Nick or even of their easy-seeming relationship (they know each other professionally, but hardly trust one another—here they are, as always, performing to get what they want). The women retire to Julie’s room, where Paula accuses Nick of date-raping a friend of hers back in college. When he shows up at the door, drunk and stupid, the women decide to teach him something, though they’re not sure what.
Paula administers a knock-out dose of Julie’s valium, which leaves Nick quite out of the film’s central action—the women working out their own anxieties and competitions over his comatose body. Julie and Paula then get serious with one another, testing the limits of their new friendship: Julie observes, “It is all about trust,” but it’s not really. It’s about power and fear, which are in the same ballpark as trust, but more difficult to own.
The women are canny enough to move Nick out of Julie’s room before they do anything, dragging him to a section of the hotel that is—so symbolically—under construction. Surrounded by plastic coversheets and unfinished boards, Julie and Paula strip him to his boxers (why they stop here is not so clear), then write nasty words on him while pressing each other’s obvious buttons: Julie accuses Paula of being privileged and apathetic, Paula accuses Julie of being a lonely old lady; Paula dares Julie to touch Nick’s dick, to pose for a photo with the body, and then, to kiss her.
These last moments are clearly unnerving for Julie, but the film never makes clear why they are, since she is, after all, a self-aware, tough chick who is comfortable in a mostly un-self-aware, tough world. Paula apparently introduces the chance Julie will be “caught” or that she’ll do something she hasn’t done before. But what is the real risk here? Paula suggests that Julie may be: a) unhappy with her life and b) interested in girls, but how can either of these be new ideas, to Julie, or to viewers? In fact, none of this all-night exchange is so wayward or alarming as the movie seems to think it is. Though, I must say that Nick’s unconsciousness through it all is a nice touch: he is an appropriate emblem of what ails the women, a cocky fellow who is also ragingly irrelevant. Paula’s ostensible insight about women in business—“We express issues of doubt and control differently”—is lost: these women reflect and even emulate the men they despise and envy. This in itself is hardly a trite observation (it’s actually quite sad), but the film sets it up like it’s a revelation, rather than a point of departure. The Business of Strangers doesn’t press on to any of the more dangerous questions it hints at: Paula’s performance never reveals anything you don’t presume about her, and Julie learns precisely what you think she will.