The Business of Strangers

The one overriding moral lesson of The Business of Strangers is not to mess with pissed off drunk women. They can really do some bizarre stuff. The Business of Strangers, the feature length debut of writer/director Patrick Stettner (Flux) is sharp and witty, but at times feels like an adapted stage play drawn out a little too long. The movie focuses human issues like trust, friendship, and power, especially power over other people. Julie Styron (Stockard Channing, Where the Heart Is, Isn't She Great), a fast-rising career woman, is used to this power. She has grand ambitions, and is working her way up the corporate ladder. This means that she will do whatever she can to further her career, so when the CEO of her company tells her he is flying in for an emergency meeting, she immediately suspects the worst and meets a headhunter.

Styron is away on business, doing a presentation for some potential clients. The presentation initially does not go well due to the absence of Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles, Save the Last Dance, State and Main), the a/v technician. Murphy's flight was delayed, causing her to miss most of the meeting. In a fit of rage, Styron fires Murphy. Murphy, who is young and headstrong, responds in kind. Later, Styron spots Murphy at the hotel bar, and feels remorse for her rash actions. They begin talking and drinking, and inexplicably begin bonding. Styron probably sees a little bit of herself in Murphy, who cops a huge attitude and has a thing against authority. The two move from the bar, to the hotel room, to the spa, and soon are actually pretty close. However, Murphy's temperament is much different; she is always taunting or daring Styron to go one step further.

This 'game' escalates when they meet Nick Harris (Frederick Weller, Puppet, Harvest). Harris is the headhunter who met with Styron earlier. Murphy, in her attempts to see how far she can dare Styron. Harris becomes a pawn in their game, one that turns increasingly dangerous as the three consume more alcohol. Stettner writes a complex psychological game of one upsmanship between Murphy and Styron. Murphy thinks Styron is a square, and wants her to experience 'life,' while Styron keeps going further to show that she isn't. The culmination of their actions goes a little too far. For the maximum dramatic effect, Stettner would be smart to stop ten minutes before he actually did. Going as far as he did casts a pallor on both characters and cheapens the impact of what they did. It feels like Stettner is trying to draw out the length of the movie, since it drags in the middle.

Regardless, The Business of Strangers is extremely well acted. Especially since there are only three people in front of the camera. Stiles and Channing play well off each other, slowly becoming friends yet still very wary of each other. Their characters are both highly intelligent, which makes the mind games they play with each other even more fascinating. Stettner also gives the Stiles character a dark streak, so she has a mean sense of humor that frequently surfaces. Stiles is the only actress of her generation willing to take risks in her roles, and this is a big one that pays off well. Harris is not in the film much, and for the parts he is, he is playing a horny drunk guy to the best that anybody can.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 24 minutes, Rated R for strong language and some sexuality.

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