Patrick Stettner’s debut feature has been called a feminine counterpart to Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997), and the comparison is an apt one. The earlier picture was a game of oneupsmanship involving two businessmen stuck in a strange city and a young woman whom they plotted to mistreat; the new one is in many ways a gender reversal of that story. The protagonists here are Julie Styron (Stockard Channing), the VP of an anonymous company, and Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles), an underling at the same firm. While on a trip to make a pitch to some potential clients, Julie learns of a special board meeting held in her absence, and presumes that she’s about to be fired; her mood is worsened when Paula shows up late to the presentation and poisons the chance of a sale. Julie nonchalantly orders that Paula be sacked, but before long she learns that the news from the corporate office isn’t as bad as she’d feared and regrets doing so. When she encounters Paula later in the hotel bar, she extends an olive branch, and before long the two women are apparently bonding, despite their differences in age, experience and background. Their camaraderie is interrupted, however, by the appearance of Nick Harris (Frederick Weller), an oily headhunter whom Julie had called in when she believed her job to be in jeopardy. Paula confides to Julie a horrible secret about Nick, and together to two women decide to take vengeance on him. The outcome, and the truth about Paula’s charges, won’t be revealed here.
What’s especially good about Stettner’s film is its acute observations about the natural competitiveness between the two businesswomen. Styron is a self-made person, the graduate of an obscure school who’s made her way up the corporate ladder pretty much on her own. Murphy, on the other hand, is a child of privilege, trained at an elite college and still of the opinion that the world owes her everything. The way in which they’re drawn to one another yet equally suspicious of each other is expertly caught. Yet between them, it’s the older woman who’s much better drawn, and better played, too. Julie is a woman of both strength and vulnerability, and Channing, who’s been shamelessly underused on the big screen (her last good role was in 1993’s “Six Degrees of Separation”), seizes on both sides of the character and makes her come fully alive: it’s a searing, truthful performance. Stiles is less fortunate. Paula is more sketchily written, her ambiguities and motives deliberately concealed (even at the close she remains obstinately opaque), and as a result the actress doesn’t inhabit her with anywhere near the same degree of fullness. If the thespian contest between Channing and Stiles can’t help but come out in the former’s favor, however, the younger woman still holds her own–a formidable accomplishment. Weller is good as well, keeping the viewer guessing about his character nicely–and you have to give credit to a fellow willing to undergo, on film, the sort of indignities to which poor Nick falls subject. Together the three make the film a consistently intriguing, if not completely satisfying, portrait of sexual politics inside and beyond the boardroom.
In the final analysis, “The Business of Strangers” doesn’t pack the punch of “In the Company of Men,” not only because it seems a bit derivative, but because it isn’t wrapped up as cleverly as the earlier film. Its portrayal of corporate life among women (a subject rarely touched on in contemporary film except in romantic comedies) is nonetheless incisive, and that fact, along with the superb lead performances, makes it worth searching out.