Two women meet and spend a cathartic night together in Patrick Stettner's flawed but interesting feature, "The Business of Strangers." This intelligently scripted drama delivers thanks to the smart performances of Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. The film will need to attract the interest of niche distribs to break beyond the festival route.

Two women from opposite worlds meet and spend a cathartic night together in writer-director Patrick Stettner’s flawed but interesting first feature, “The Business of Strangers.” While it could have used a punchier final act that distilled its themes more cogently and conclusively, this intelligently scripted drama about power and its many channels nonetheless delivers thanks to Stettner’s stylish visual sense and, most of all, to the smart, commanding performances of leads Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. Too somber perhaps for significant commercial attention, the film will need to attract the interest of niche distribs to break beyond the festival route.

Chilly corporate setting recalls that of Neil LaBute’s debut “In the Company of Men,” and like that film, this drama casually explores the kind of behavior bred by such impersonal, sterile environments. But its central theme — and the script’s most satisfyingly delineated character path — concerns the sacrifices and compromises made by career women in order to succeed in a hostile, male-dominated sphere.

The career woman in question is fortysomething Julie Styron (Channing), who spends her life shunting from one boardroom to another to make management presentations, checking in and out of luxury executive suites in anonymous hotels.

During a particularly taxing day, some cryptic signals from her CEO’s office convince her she’s about to be fired. Julie’s anxiety is further piqued when her inexperienced technical assistant Paula (Stiles) shows up late for a presentation, forcing her to go it alone.

After unceremoniously dismissing the girl, Julie hooks up with snaky headhunter Nick (Frederick Weller) in a bar to mull over her career prospects. But the dreaded encounter with her CEO yields a surprise when she learns she’s being ushered into his job.

In these early scenes, Channing swiftly conveys the stifled existence of a brittle, tense woman defined entirely by her professional persona. Crisp, exacting and confident, she is clearly also painfully aware of her vulnerability.

The news of her promotion, when it comes, brings no real elation but rather a numb mixture of relief and consternation over the realization that her already demanding career is about to consume even more of her. The lack of family or close friends to whom she can communicate her good news makes her sense of personal conflict still more acute.

When Paula resurfaces in an airport hotel bar after her flight is canceled, the girl’s youth and her sassy, confronting manner contribute further to Julie’s self-doubt, gradually exposing the chinks in her armor.

The relationship between the two women moves in unexpected directions as Julie first apologizes for her abruptness earlier and offers to get Paula a room for the night.

They’re initially distant and cautious with each other, but the ice between them melts in a very funny scene in a crowded elevator in which Paula baits Julie with some lesbian innuendo, to which she responds with gusto. (An ambiguous sexual undercurrent is key to establishing the edge in many of the women’s early exchanges.) After some easy downtime in the gym and sauna, during which they relax to some degree and begin to enjoy each other’s company, things take a darker turn — and the film shifts onto less secure footing — with the return of Nick to the hotel.

Claiming to have met him before, Paula insists on ditching Nick in the bar, telling Julie how he raped her girlfriend years before during a frat party. While Paula is at first reluctant to act on Julie’s suggestion that they corner and humiliate him, Nick’s appearance at the door makes her change her mind. She plies him with alcohol, flicks on the porn channel to loosen him up, then admits to having dumped a heap of Valium in his drink when they find him out cold in the bathroom.

Dragging him downstairs to a hotel wing under renovation, they strip him and scrawl damning epithets all over his body in a ritualistic scene that feels singularly overwrought within the generally more measured context. When Paula attempts to push the exercise too far, Julie is forced to reassert her control over the situation.

As the power ping-pongs back and forth between the two women, Stiles is every inch a match for the formidable Channing, setting off dramatic sparks as her character’s brash self-assuredness and youthful arrogance clash with the older woman’s more sharply honed instincts.

But there’s an inherent weakness in the way Paula is drawn and an unfairness in her treatment as a character. When certain aspects of her story are exposed as lies, almost all the information revealed about her comes into question, with no concrete truths brought in instead. This leaves her as merely another enigmatic misfit, either a pathological liar or devious rich brat.

That said, however, the interplay between the two women remains lively and unpredictable enough to keep it edgy and compelling. And both performances are nuanced and resourceful, given able backup by Weller as an apparent slimeball who may be less reprehensible than he seems.

Channing makes Julie wise, sexy, witty and in-control but also a little scared, and so starved for a life that she’s willing to act recklessly. Stiles brings a depth and wiliness that have remained untapped in her teen-pic roles.

While it’s very much an actor’s piece, the look of the film is also vital in establishing its mood. The prowling camera and stark, symmetrical compositions of lenser Teo Maniaci — who shot the visually arresting Lodge Kerrigan pics “Clean, Shaven” and “Claire Dolan” — convey a tangible sense of the lifeless world of artificial environments that Julie and Nick call home and in which Paula is a disdainful tourist.

Composer Alexander Lasarenko’s coolly obsessive percussion score also hits the right atmospheric note.

The Business of Strangers

Production

An i5 Films production in association with Headquarters. Produced by Susan A. Stover, Robert H. Nathan. Executive producers, Scott McGehee, David Siegel. Directed, written by Patrick Stettner.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Teo Maniaci; editor, Keiko Deguchi; music, Alexander Lasarenko; production designer, Dina Goldman; art director, Richard Burgess; set decorator, Tora Peterson; costume designers, Kasia Walicka Maimone, Dawn Weisberg; sound (Dolby Digital), Noah Vivekenand Timan; associate producer, Ramsey Fong; line producer, Derrick Tseng; assistant director, Cecily Kaston; casting, Nicole Arbusto, Joy Dickson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition), Jan. 19, 2001. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Julie Styron - Stockard Channing Paula Murphy - Julia Stiles Nick Harris - Frederick Weller
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