Working Girls

Channing and Stiles are stranded, and their face-off makes for nasty Business

Mar 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
The combatants in Patrick Stettner's compelling first feature, The Business of Strangers, are a middle-aged software executive (Stockard Channing) wearing a steel-blue suit and an air of professional hauteur; the executive's mysterious new assistant (Julia Stiles), fresh out of Dartmouth and full of self-righteous aggression; and a cocky "headhunter" (Frederick Weller) who imagines himself suave and attractively world-weary. Stranded for a night in a soulless airport hotel -- Houston? Minneapolis? It doesn't much matter -- they hook up in a tense power struggle that casts a harsh new light on American corporate culture in general and women's changing roles at the office in particular. Luckily, native New Yorker and Columbia graduate Stettner also has a sense of humor, so the bleakness and blackness of his psychodrama are constantly relieved by wit.

For Channing's orderly Julie Styron, career is not a priority but an obsession. She's worked her way to a vice presidency, but, as we learn in stages, the cost has been high. She's wearied herself fighting institutional misogyny, failed at marriage and endured countless nights on the road in lonely hotel rooms. She talks with her psychiatrist mostly by telephone, and her best friend is apparently her secretary. Meanwhile, Julie's hard-won success remains subject to worrisome uncertainties: When the boss leaves an urgent phone message, she has no idea whether she's being fired or promoted. But this well-armored veteran of the business wars has long since learned that that's part of the game.

When a new player bursts into the fray, the rules suddenly get murky. Stiles' Paula Murphy is a bundle of sneers and complaints, derisive in the face of her boss' ambition, dismissive of her achievements and contemptuous of all the biz-world conventions, right down to credit cards. Still, this obstreperous new-wave feminist stirs something in the older woman -- a glimpse of the freedom she no longer has, perhaps a subtle sort of envy. After a rocky beginning at a product presentation (Paula arrives 45 minutes late), the two start to bond in the hotel bar, united by their gender and their shared sense of the absurd. Paula likely hates everything Julie stands for, sees her as some kind of female Willy Loman, but for now she seems to take whatever pleasure she can from the situation. They're two strangers talking over scotch and water, waiting for their flights home. What can you do? Have a swim together. Take a sauna. Laugh and bicker. Bait the jerks in the elevator with sly jokes.

If there's a delicate balance between the women's alliance and their antagonism, it's quickly disturbed by the presence of Nick Harris (Weller). He calls himself a "placement provider," and he's the kind of self-absorbed, delusional striver David Mamet's always dreaming up -- another miserable end product of dog-eat-dog capitalism, like the desperate real-estate hustlers of Glengarry Glen Ross. Julie already knows Nick slightly from her travels. The bombshell explodes when Paula says she also remembers Nick -- from a very nasty incident back in Boston. With this revelation, all of Julie's old resentments against men in power are aroused and Paula's hunger for revenge runs wild. Through the long night, the women plot, vie for control and try to close the deal on their most violent emotions. In the end, Stettner provides some startling surprises and satisfying ironies.

The film's business-world manipulations and ruthless con games sometimes play like reheated Mamet. But there's a major departure here, of course. Stettner's angry vision of the workaday world is inhabited by women, not men, and it's through their presence that he finds a voice and a style all his own -- wary, smart, occasionally very funny. It's a pleasure to watch these two superb actresses circle and attack, conspire and conflict in the corporate shark tank, and it's just as profound a pleasure to behold a talented new filmmaker who's managed to succeed his first time out.

For Channing, best known these days as the first lady of The West Wing, Strangers provides a splendid opportunity to show her stuff. Behind Julie Styron's executive façade, there's not much of a life, and in that void Channing draws a vivid portrait of loneliness, full-blooded and beautifully detailed. As for Stiles, she's already proved herself one of the most versatile of the new crop of actresses by playing everything from a white teenager struggling with her identity in a black high school (Save the Last Dance) to a postmodern Ophelia in Michael Almereyda's passionate take on Hamlet. Here, she's even more captivating. Thanks to Stettner's beautifully written screenplay, we're never sure what Paula's agenda is. Is she a voice of conscience? An avenging angel? A demon? A victim bedeviled by demons? At the end of these densely packed 83 minutes, we get a few answers. The skeptic will tell you that all human relations must be flavored by doubt, and this promising young filmmaker's doubts are fetchingly complex.