Movie Review: The Business of Strangers
by Alex Keen
Published: November 27, 2001
USA, 2001 – IFC Films
Directed by: Patrick Stettner
Stockard Channing as Julie Styron
Julia Stiles as Paula Murphy
Fred Weller as Nick Harris
Additional information is available at the Internet Movie Database
Buzz from critics, journalists, and most likely publicists is saying that "The Business of Strangers" will have the same affect on women and sex as "In the Company of Men" had with men. The upcoming IFC release places two confident and competent actresses in two dynamically different roles. Stockard Channing portrays a well-maintained businesswoman, with obviously no family or sex life. Julia Stiles, on the other hand portrays the liberal low-level assistant covered in dopey ultra-symbolic tattoos.
While these two characters not often explored in film are interesting and complex, they are forced into a plot that is ultimately unsatisfying.
As with most indie films, "The Business of Strangers" begins slow, allowing for more character detail than plot development. A glimpse into Julie's life shows her emptiness and her boredom. The stereotype of the lonely but powerful businesswoman is well thought out, but almost too forceful. Channing does not falter in creating and interesting character – she is just bound by the writer/director Patrick Stettner's observations of that type.
While the film continues to follow Julie's ho-hum routine, slivers of Stiles's Paula introduce her to the plot. Initially a man-hating, sexual deviant/temptress, Paula becomes more complex – and yet less interesting – as a plot begins to unfold. Many questions arise as to why Paula is encouraging Julie to make certain decisions and perform certain acts. And yet it makes the story even less entertaining.
"The Business of Strangers" fails to be successful because it is too intent on exploring the sexual revelations of its characters. The intriguing element is not their sexual desires, but their social realities. Paula and Julie are two characters that not only should not have the experience they have, they could not have the experience.
Paula and Julie's unspoken dialogue on rape is a weak argument presented by a man that seems blinded by his masculinity. Stettner spends a lot of plot time and emotional release on the duo's unspoken dialogue. He leaves blatant plot droppings throughout to evoke a sense of mystery and confusion. Instead of creating mystery, Stettner reveals how little he understands about the affect rape has on the female mind. He recreates events and emotions shown in rape understanding seminars, and hopes that they carry the adequate weight to keep the story afloat and interesting. Stettner fails to realize that overdramatic moments in simple and delicate stories ruin not only the story, but also the characters.
Overall the performances from Stiles and Channing hit and miss. While Stiles playing the part of the rebellious and sex-engaged temptress is plausible, she fails to overcome the boundaries of plot change and character revelation. By the end her once interesting role is dwindled to a device of empty plot points.
Channing also starts the film strong, yet collapses as the film engages a plot. Her version of Julie appears as a powerful single businesswoman everyone knows. Her plight is clear and coherent. And yet her plight crumbles to a mere device in Stettner's discussion of rape mentality. Julie is allowed only one valuable question at the film's conclusion – "Am I more than a job?" Nothing else worthwhile resonates from the plot.
Several weeks ago, another IFC Film, "Tape" dealt with almost the same subject as "The Business of Strangers." Both films deal with the issue of – what is the affect and the truth of rape? Both films extensively explored the importance of understanding each character before delving into rape. And although "Tape" is still a flawed film, it handled the drama inherent in rape with more honesty. It allowed a clear female voice into the matter – which makes "The Business of Strangers" even more of an abomination.
A movie with two female main characters needs to have a women's voice to truly recreate the reality of living with rape. "The Business of Strangers" hides a man's voice in the dialogue of a woman.
Instead of trumping "In the Company of Men," "The Business of Strangers" settles for a mockery of a discussion on rape.
Overall Rating: C-