Cinema Signal:

. "The Business of Strangers"

When a movie is made from a play there are advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages is a skillful use of language and sparkling dialogue, because a play's success or, even, mounting, depends so much on the written word. Among the disadvantages is the small world a play encompasses. "The Business of Strangers" is essentially a two character piece with a few supporting members and comes off as a play.

The scope of the piece is evident in the beginning when a movie audience might well ask, "when is the drama going to begin?" Soon thereafter you make the adjustment to this rather self-contained piece of work that presents two fine actresses bringing a play to the screen and you're made to understand that this is about the relationship between two women and pretty much only about that.

Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) has her priorities and they're all pretty much about business. She's failed at marriage, has accepted that her best if not only friend is her secretary and has fought corporate women-bashing to achieve the level of vice president of her company. What that means is that she goes out on the road to visit other companies to peddle her company's services and products.

At one such meeting she is the picture of efficiency and brevity as she presents her spiel before yet another roomful of executives, doing as well as she can without her presentation materials. They're not there because her new assistant hasn't arrived. By the time the assistant, Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) appears, a case of materials in tow, it's too late to pull out the drawings and diagrams. The meeting is over. The executives have other things to do.

Slightly enraged, Styron makes a dash for her car downstairs, brushing off the apologies from assistant Murphy, gets on her cell phone with a colleague at her company, and deftly severs Murphy's employment. She takes off for a return to her office worrying that her impending meeting with her boss is going to be about herself being fired. She even interviews Nich Harris (Frederick Weller) a "headhunter", about other job prospects for someone with her credentials. Ah, but her destiny is not on that track; instead, she's astonished when the meeting turns out to be about elevating her to president of the company.

After learning of it she takes some time off, gets on another plane, another town, another soulless hotel where she's temporarily stranded, and bumps into... who else but her ex-assistant Murphy. She's no longer in a firing mood and hires Murphy back, and these two spend the rest of the film in each other's company while discussing the vagaries of life, of men, of career fulfillments. The two run into Nick Harris, her headhunter friend, (very small world) in the bar, who is very prepared to make moves on whichever lady might be interested in his self claimed charms. But when Murphy gets Styron back up to her room, she tells a story about recognizing Harris as the rapist who attacked a friend of hers.

The two carry out a plot to bring justice to the unsuspecting headhunter-rapist and, together they drug him and express all their pent up fury concerning the opposite sex on his unconscious body. Only the agendas are different, as concealed truths and histories are slowly revealed. Accusations and admissions fly; risks and threats abound, and a bit of implied lesbianism emerges as the two women fight to achieve the better part of the balance that's been hovering between them. Is it a game of control and dominance? For a while you're thinking that a lasting bond might be brewing, but it could all be a form of con game.

Fact is, it's the younger woman who seems intent on proving something to the elder. It doesn't seem to be a form of revenge for being fired... they both get beyond that. Perhaps it's to prove that, despite their different stations in life, they are essentially equal. Or, in fact, that she, the assistant, might actually be superior. But while she is attempting to prove it she's ignoring the executive's meeting her on a playing field of such equality while she clearly doesn't need to. Murphy, it turns out, is a creature of committed, if concealed, aggression prone to emotional opportunism.

It's a good outing for Stockard Channing, an actress with an enviable list of credits in films of considerable literary value. She's proven difficult to cast, however, until she won the part of first lady on TV's "West Wing", a very classy ensemble series enjoying awards and a considerable following. Without that exposure, Channing might not have been considered for "The Business of Strangers", but it's beneficial that she was. Her career executive with repressions is well played.

Young and beautiful, however, is always the draw and Julia Stiles fulfills that part of the role with no question. But, she adds a lot more substance to it with a rather dynamic quality as she attacks what her role attempts to realize: clever rebelliousness and opportunism. She's perfectly believable in the requirements of the script and convinces that in the current crop of ex-ingenues become women, she's one to watch.

As for the script, the evidence of legitimate theater, the limited number of sets, the tiny cast, the studied dialogue make it more a playgoing experience than cinema. It's thought provoking and a fine study in performance, as any play should be and may have been conceived this way by writer-director Patrick Stettner for easy producability. However it does in theaters, though, he could easily give it an afterlife on the stage.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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