Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and some Sexuality
Directed by: Patrick Stettner
Written by: Patrick Stettner
Starring: Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller & Marcus Giamatti
I discovered THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS through one of many late night searches for little-known titles to possibly review. This dark drama has quite the whopper of a premise. However, the promise this movie has in its premise quickly diminishes thanks to snail-like pacing, so-so writing and faulty characters. There are things to like about BUSINESS OF STRANGERS, but just as many problems that weigh the film down. As a whole, it’s a middle-of-the-road film that has a lot on its mind and doesn’t know how express its ideas in a way that isn’t blatantly obvious or annoyingly heavy-handed.
Julie is a middle-aged businesswoman fearing for her job. After a stressful meeting goes wrong, Julie fires her young assistant Paula in the heat of the moment. It turns out that Julie’s suspected termination was actually a big promotion. It just so happens that the now-happier Julie soon runs across the emotionally distressed Paula in a bar. After apologizing for her earlier behavior and making amends, Julie invites Paula up to her room. The two form an unconventional friendship that dares to possibly turn into something more. Everything takes an ugly turn when Patrick, an employee of Julie’s, is accused by Paula of being a rapist. The two women invite the naïve Patrick up to their room for some potential revenge…
The first two-thirds of BUSINESS OF STRANGERS is devoted to Paula and Julie bonding in various locations. These include: a hotel bar, an elevator, a gym, and a spa. That’s pretty much the entire first hour of this movie and while conversations on film can be interesting (last year’s amazing A MOST WANTED MAN and impressive A MOST VIOLENT YEAR were both almost made entirely of conversations). The problem is that THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS really doesn’t have anything incredibly profound, new or groundbreaking to say about the world. It’s stating obvious thoughts and views about screwed-up societal norms. The topics of discussion include age differences, various working class types (e.g. businesswoman vs. free-spirited writer), and not-so-subtle forms of power that women seem to hold over men and each other. While some of these points are interesting (especially comments about power play in sex and how lots of pornos are actually directed by women), repeating them over and over in different words doesn’t exactly make for great social commentary. Instead, it makes me want to yell at the screen: “I get it! Can we please just move on with the plot?”
Running at slightly over 80 minutes, BUSINESS OF STRANGERS drags far longer than it should. In fact, the main conflict of the plot doesn’t really come into play until the final third of the film. The mental battle between Julie and Paula is entertaining to watch in moments, but the performances are hit-or-miss depending on the scene. I couldn’t help but think that both actresses were playing obvious caricatures rather than actual characters. Stockard Channing sells her role as a heartless businesswoman who values her work over genuine human interactions. Julia Stiles is convincing enough during certain scenes as the possibly sociopathic and manipulative Paula, but her delivery comes off as wooden when she’s trying to be ultra-intimidating. It’s like watching someone try to act tough after watching someone else genuinely act tough. It just doesn’t come off as realistic or believable. Neither of these actresses can exactly salvage the so-so dialogue that the script is throwing their way and it shows.
THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS has interesting moments (a few points made during the many conversations are fascinating to think about, the performances can be good in the right scenes, and once the actual revenge plot begins, the movie picks up the pace dramatically). These moments are stuffed between lots of pointlessly drawn out scenes, unconvincing lines of dialogue delivered by two actress trying to make the most out of the screenplay they’ve been given, and blatantly obvious messages being hammered repeated ad nauseam. The best way that I can describe my feelings on THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS is that this is a great 25-minute short that somehow got 60 extra minutes tacked on to it.