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[whitespace] 'The Business of Strangers'
Hit the Ground Running: Stockard Channing plays a hard-driving executive in 'The Business of Strangers.'

Executive Action

Stockard Channing works twice as hard to make 'The Business of Strangers' succeed

By Richard von Busack

PATRICK STETTNER'S DEBUT film, The Business of Strangers, sounds brutalist--LaButalist even. At the film festivals, critics frequently compared it to Neil LaBute's dire In the Company of Men. Note, though, the opening shot: the tall median grasses lining an airport runway, combed by the exhaust of a descending jet. That soft brushing of the grass signals an offbeat sensuality, as does the way cinematographer Ted Maniaci gets a cold thrill out of the alien cleanliness of hotels and airports.

The action begins at what might as well be the Edward Hopper International Airport, with executive Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) hitting the ground running. We don't know what business Styron's in, but it's clear director Stettner knows the drill. His workplace lingo isn't overwritten or overprofane; Stettner is not just another Mamet's boy. Some skullduggery is going on at the home office, which Styron monitors desperately via cell phone. Her business presentation is screwed up by the too-late arrival of Paula (Julia Stiles), a visual-aids helper, and the older woman fires her on the spot. By chance, Julia encounters Paula later at the airport hotel. By then, Styron has received some good news and decides to buy Paula a drink.

After we get to know Paula, we can see she's an ambisexual, hard-partying girl who fancies herself a writer. She's as arrogant as a racehorse but good at telling people what they want to hear: a female version of Patricia Highsmith's amoral Tom Ripley. The drinking continues into the night, ending in a seductive tug of war between the two. Channing's Styron is bottled up to the point of androgyny. Stettner teases us, in a civilized fashion, over what exactly the older woman's love life is like. Soon, the two women come together in choosing a target: a full-of-himself headhunter named Nick (Frederick Weller) with a derisive smile and porn-star sideburns.

If what happens later sometimes seems improbable, blame the miscasting of Stiles. Yes, her disdainful face has the sexy-sourness of that French actress whom critic Manny Farber used to refer to as "Jeanne Morose." Unlike Moreau, however, Styles isn't yielding: you couldn't get under her tattooed skin, because there wouldn't be any room in there for anyone else. (As a rule, any character with a tarantula tattoo is probably not going to turn out to be a misunderstood, vulnerable soul.) Because Channing doesn't have someone of her caliber to match her, The Business of Strangers falls short of complete success. It's Stettner's barbed, sparse dialogue--and Channing's inflections of it--that makes the film gripping. Thanks to Channing, we don't see a bitch, we see what Styron would want us to see: an unself-pitying business professional, working twice as hard because she's aging and because she's a woman. While I'm not likening the looks of a handsome actress to a homely one, Channing seems like Edward G. Robinson at his best: all tenseness and muscular power that frays, in quiet moments, into neurotic frailty.

'The Business of Strangers' (R; 84 min.), directed and written by Patrick Stettner, photographed by Teodoro Maniaci and starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles, opens Friday at the Towne in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the December 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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