I guess I just didn't get it. It happens sometimes, someone not getting a movie. The Business of Strangers generated a lot of buzz on the festival circuit last year. What it didn't make at the box office (its take was a shade over $1 million) it made up in critical adulation—three stars from Roger Ebert, Peter Travers raved about it, it garnered a 81% overall at RottenTomatoes.com. It piqued my interest enough to request to review it. At the end, I felt as if I had missed something, much like the people in the film are constantly missing airline flights.
Facts of the Case
The Business of Strangers follows two career women. Julie, played by Stockard Channing, is a power player. Paula, played by Julia Stiles, is an underling. The two women's lives first intersect when they are supposed to meet at an important meeting, but Paula's flight is delayed and she arrives just late enough to see the VIPs leaving. Julie cans her on the spot, not caring that the delay wasn't her fault. The company then wants to can Julie, but with the help of headhunter Nick (played by Fred Weller, who you probably don't remember from anything), she parlays the lost contract and threatened termination into a CEO position. Yeah, go figure. While "celebrating" in the hotel lounge (her idea of a party is scotch on the rocks and a corner to herself), she runs into Paula. Inexplicably, the older woman takes a liking to the younger one, and the two bond over drinks, a trip to the hotel gym, and a dip in the pool. Later, back at the bar, they run into Nick. Paula's hackles go up at once—she says that he raped "a friend" in college (and as we all know, whenever someone says something happened to "a friend," they're talking about themselves; really, does that line fool anyone?). The ladies lure him back to Julie's hotel room and exact their revenge on him…
I'll say this for The Business of Strangers: It's definitely a big shut-the-hell-up to all the actresses in Hollywood who complain about a dearth of good roles for women, or at least good roles that don't require them to drop their drawers. I'm looking at you, Halle Berry. Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles are both utterly fantastic in their respective roles. Neither is much of a stretch—Channing's character is not unlike what you see her play on The West Wing, and Stiles has done the too-bitchy-for-her-years thing in virtually every movie she's ever been in, and really, we get it, she can dance—but both are eminently believable and are what make the movie worth watching.
Here's where I can't praise The Business of Strangers: its story. The plot description I gave? That's pretty much it. Maybe I was expecting something different, spoiled by female bonding/revenge movies like Thelma and Louise and Bound. The Business of Strangers itself leads the viewer down that path, making you think something is going to happen to this scummy rapist, or alleged rapist. But it's all setup with no payoff. It's like one big long first act with no acts two or three. It gets its protagonist—Julie—into a sticky situation: Paula's revenge scheme. Once it's carried out, it seems like there should be some payoff. Are they going to be caught? Will Nick have his comeuppance? How will they work through it? Will Paula blackmail Julie? Will Julie catch Paula in some sort of lie? What will be the outcome? We don't get any of that. Other than a few minutes at the airport the next morning, there's nothing. It. Just. Ends.
I hate it when that happens.
Independent films are supposed to be different, and it is indeed refreshing to see a movie that's idiosyncratic and perhaps a bit nebulous in the conclusions it draws from its characters. Not all films of this breed must SAY SOMETHING (and don't independent films usually do it in that way, in all caps and bold letters?). I was hoping The Business of Strangers would, because it seemed like it did have something to say, except it forgot to say it. There should have been some statement about gender politics in the business world, or observations about how women at different stations on the corporate ladder interact with each other, or commentary on date rape and its effects on a woman's future. All these issues appear lightly on the surface, but in executive summary form. Sadly, that abstract is all we get, with the meaty parts on leave of absence. It's the longest short film I've ever seen.
The Business of Strangers is one of the first films to be released on DVD from a partnership between MGM and IFC Films (the theatrical branch of the Independent Film Channel cable network). Hopefully, future releases will be afforded a little more attention. Video is available in either 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or full-frame. Given the low-budget nature of the film, the image is generally pleasing—decent black levels (quite a bit of the action is in dim locations), accurate colors and flesh tones—but is hampered by frequent and obtrusive edge enhancement. Both versions of the film are crammed on one side of the disc, so the lower bitrate results in a picture lacking the detail more bits could have brought. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. The occasional airplane flyby pans and booms as if this were Die Hard 2, but the rest of the film is squarely situated front and center, with dialogue mixed a bit low in comparison with the score (which bears a passing resemblance to Thomas Newman's American Beauty music).
The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Did you ever see it? I didn't.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I never said I wasn't opinionated. As with any film, your mileage may vary.
Just a theatrical trailer? I know it probably cost as much to make this DVD as it did to make the film, but couldn't MGM have ponied up a bit more to produce a few extra features, like maybe a commentary track, or some IFC coverage of the film, or heck, even a Photoshop-produced page of the film's awards and nominations? If you're going to partner with a maker of independent films, at least try to scare up some support for the medium!
It's worth seeing for two fine performances from two fine actresses. Because of that, it's worth a story that's more than just a setup for things that never happen. If you like small character studies, give The Business of Strangers a rental. If you don't, I'm game for watching Bound for the 22nd time…
Guilty of post-First Act neglect, but acquitted for the public service of writing strong roles for women.
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