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'Business of Strangers'

Friday, January 18, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In "The Business of Strangers," Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) is the consummate woman on the way to the top.

The executive dresses in a stylish suit, dark stockings and enough heel on her slingbacks to show off the legs she shapes with two-mile treadmill runs. When an out-of-town pitch about a new software program is for naught -- her tech person is 45 minutes late -- she graciously smiles and shakes hands with the now-lost clients and heads for the door. When she gets to the curb, she calls the tech's boss and has the woman fired.

 
 
'THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS'I

RATING: R for strong language, some sexuality

STARRING: Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles

DIRECTOR: Patrick Stettner

Critic's call:

   
 

End of story? Not quite.

This isn't the last Julie will see of Paula (Julia Stiles), the unapologetic, angry young woman who is doing the audiovisual gig for the money. She's really a tattooed Dartmouth grad and writer who, as fate would have it, is stuck at the hotel where Julie is staying. Their second encounter, however, is much different. Julie has just gotten some good news from her boss, is feeling generous and tries to make amends for being so unforgiving.

During the course of a night lubricated and blurred by scotch, $20-a-shot cognac, more scotch, anti-anxiety pills, flirtatious bar behavior, confessions, recriminations and self-examination, the women share a night to remember. A twentysomething head hunter (Fred Weller) who meets the women in the bar has his own night to remember, or, perhaps, forget.

"The Business of Strangers," opening today at the Manor and Denis theaters, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago and has been riding a wave of largely good reviews ever since.

Although scripted as a movie by director-writer Patrick Stettner, it unfolds like a play -- especially because so much of the action takes place in a nondescript airport hotel. The claustrophobic feeling is probably a function of the budget, as much as anything, although characters might act differently if they could get behind the wheel of a car and drive away.

The movie starts strong, builds steam and then spends a fair amount of time tap dancing, waiting for the sly finale that comes 84 minutes after the opening credits. It also feeds off societal stereotypes about women, especially those menopausal executives who have no husbands or children -- by choice -- and feel devoted to their jobs. Maybe we haven't come a long way, baby, although Julie makes no apologies for her choices.

Channing, now on TV as the first lady-physician to the president on "The West Wing," is terrific as the woman who has poured her energies and life into her work, as she tells her therapist by phone. She projects an inherent intelligence and sharpness, while Stiles must play a woman with an armor of rudeness, petty thievery and what appears to be a inflamed sense of justice about her. After a couple of teen romantic comedies or dramas, she steps out of the "Save the Last Dance" mold.

When "The Business of Strangers" stops giving us close-ups of ice cubes and snappy asides about porn on hotel TVs, it occasionally pauses for some thoughtful discussion. At one point, Julie suggests, "Nobody ends up being what they really want to be."

Director-writer Stettner looks like he's on the right path, even if he could use a little help with his characters' motivations and the middle of his movie.

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