Acting as a counterbalance to Neil LaBute's hellraising "In The Company Of Men," "The Business Of Strangers" (IMDb listing) takes on the point of view of women in the workplace. While not nearly as caustic and depressingly obvious as "Men," "Strangers" is still about as pointless and as unrewarding.
Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) is a successful businesswoman stuck with Paula, a clumsy assistant (Julia Stiles) that she has just fired. When both women find their flights canceled, they meet up again in a high-end hotel and bond over drinks and frustrations. Upon seeing a slimy employment recruiter (Fred Weller) in the hotel bar, Paula recognizes the man as a long ago perpetrator of rape on one of her girlfriends. Luring the recruiter up to their room, Julie and Paula knock the man unconscious and proceed to humiliate him, all the while digging up their own demons involving the male-dominated business world, and for Paula, the last days of her youthful ambitions.
"The Business Of Strangers" has the feel and momentum of a one-act play. Characters drone on and on about their uninteresting lives, the setting is one or two locations, and the deeper meaning of the text is buried so low that you look foolish if you admit that you just didn't get it. Well, I'll be brave and say that I didn't get "Strangers," and not for lack of trying. This tedious picture wants to comment on feminist ideals and workplace ethics, but really in its shallow heart, it has nothing on its agenda besides grandiose "actory" moments and absurd attempts to shock.
Since the film has only three main characters, and one is inanimate throughout most of the film, the focus is on Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles to guide us through this crazy night of lying and honesty. Channing is the pro of the two actresses, and her performance is just the right subtle mix of anger, frustration, and indifference. She dominates the screen, and either through her own charms or experiences, remains the only one not disgraced by the rather silly narrative that was cooked up for her.
Julia Stiles, on the other hand, fares far worse. A young actress that I still don't feel has developed the acting chops just quite yet, Stiles is given the tougher role as the bad girl/damaged butterfly. Stiles is far too clean-cut to pull off such a character, and her hopeless attempts to butch up her character come off as high comedy. Trust me, hearing the F-word come out of Stiles' mouth (which happens with Kevin Smith-like regularity) is about as natural as a fish on a bicycle. Faced with the prospects of holding her own against Channing, Stiles is lost, unable to render anything besides a slight beacon of pain on her face that she holds throughout the entire film.
"The Business Of Strangers" gives other independent films a bad name. It's just so self-indulgent and irrelevant that one wants to yell at the screen for the film to hurry up and make a point. Even at just around 80 minutes long, "Strangers" feels like 4 hours. You think it's bad being one of these characters? Just try spending time with them.
Filmfodder Grade: D