The Business of Strangers

Neil LaBute’s 1997 film, In the Company of Men, is a brutal look at two misogynists who date and then dump a female coworker in retribution for all the women who’d previously done them wrong. At first glance, The Business of Strangers appears to be a distaff take on the same tale. But powerful performances from Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles are saddled with a slow-developing story that tempers their effectiveness and ends up making more potent points about the ruthlessness and sterility of the business world than about any male/female relationship dynamics.

Julie (Channing) is a VP on an out-of-town business trip to make a client presentation. She learns that her boss is flying in to meet her for dinner, assumes she’s being canned and arranges for her favorite headhunter Nick to fly in and discuss career possibilities. At the client meeting she quietly seethes when temp tech assistant Paula (Stiles) arrives 45 minutes late with no advance warning; afterwards she fires her. At dinner, Julia learns she’s being made the new CEO, and heads for the hotel bar for a celebratory drink where she runs into Paula. Equally flushed and stunned with her newfound success, Julia apologizes for her earlier sharpness. The two begin a session of drinking and late-night anecdotes and confessions that turns to men and the bastards they can be, finally drawing Nick into their scheme of revenge.

Both lead actresses are near perfect in their roles. Julia is a well-worn and well-traveled warrior who’s sacrificed her personal life for her career. She’s much more comfortable in a boardroom staredown than making small talk over Dewar’s on the rocks after hours. Channing shows her consummate skill in situations with minimal dialog. In several scenes consisting solely of Julia with a phone glued to her ear she manages to display the emotion on both sides of the conversation. When she’s given the CEO nod she wordlessly shows how disappointed she is that there is no one with whom she can truly celebrate. Paula is a tattooed raver writer doing the temp thing just to pay rent between getting her "non-fiction short stories" published; Stiles conveys just the right mix of sullen energy on demand combined with a streak of keen observation and cutting commentary. Together the two engage in a symbiotic ballet of power and will, each feeding off the other’s strengths. As Nick, Fred Weller effectively walks the borderline between smooth and smarmy–the ultimate mercenary.

Although written for the screen, the film plays more like a stage production that’s been adapted. Julie, Paula and Nick have 99% of the dialog and all action takes place on a limited number of sets. Debut writer/director Patrick Stettner effectively creates a world where each company or hotel or airport could be any company or hotel or airport, and the drones that shuffle through are fairly interchangeable. Given that the film’s staging is so simplistic, it’s surprising then that it takes so long for its story to develop. The film is relatively short by today’s standards – under 80 minutes – yet it takes a full half hour for Julia and Paula to get around to their Big Conversation and uncover the Painful Secret that spurs them into action. Stettner then resorts to a combination of overt actions somewhat out of synch with his characters’ previous history, and some amateur psychology and stultifying speeches from both Julia and Paula to make his points before time runs out. There’s a final scene that neatly wraps up some ambiguities that might better have been left hanging.

– Bob Aulert