A scene from 'The Business of Strangers'
Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 84 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, December 7, 2001
Directed by Patrick Stettner

Starring Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller


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An executive and her assistant stuck at an airport hotel toy with each others' psyches in 'Strangers'

By Rob Blackwelder

Stockard Channing submerges herself in layers of psychological debris as an aging, pinched corporate crocodile in "The Business of Strangers," a unsettling, canny film of Machiavellian manipulation, mind games and sexual conjecture.

Going stir crazy in an posh hotel at the end of an important business trip that went awry, her fatigued and barren, Valium-fueled life of raw ambition has been flashing before her eyes when she goes to the lobby bar and comes face-to-face with an insolent young assistant (Julia Stiles) she'd fired in a snit that afternoon.

A retrospective apology leads to several rounds of drinks and a mutual recognition of their similar brash chutzpah and cold calculation of life -- and that leads to trust, which is a very dangerous emotion between people who are cold and calculating.

Outwardly cocky, inwardly unstable and a perverted student of human behavior, Stiles (in a strong, dark, cryptic performance that keeps pace with Channing) begins impulsively toying with her former boss, pushing the executive's limits until she pushes back in a game of psychological one-upsmanship they both rapidly come to relish.

Visiting Channing's top-floor suite, Stiles turns on the hotel's porno channel to see if it will make her new friend uncomfortable. "I watch them all the time," the young corrival claims nonchalantly. "It's fascinating to see how men view sex." In an elevator full of middle-aged men, and dressed in swimsuits on their way to the pool, Stiles starts an argument implying the two are lesbian lovers. Channing is stunned at first, but soon plays along. In the sauna after their swim, she deliberately tweaks her elder, asking "Is this what a hot flash feels like?"

After forming a certain adversarial bond, Stiles throws a dangerous new coal on the fire when a slick, young business shark pal of Channing's (Frederick Weller) spots them in the bar (they've returned for more booze) and saunters over to schmooze. Stiles becomes visibly agitated and eventually reveals, in private, that she'd met Weller in college -- and he raped her best friend.

All this has played out with palpable tension under the taught direction of screenwriter and feature rookie Patrick Stettner, but the picture's pressure-cooker atmosphere becomes twice as thick as the women decide to avenge the entire female sex upon this contemptuous cad. At first they just make him ill at ease with some of the tricks they've been practicing on each other all night, but it doesn't take long for events to escalate exponentially.

The question of Stiles' veracity is intended to hang over the film like a storm cloud, but ironically it's in these later scenes that "Strangers" begins to lose some of its potency. Once you get a handle on the girl's manipulative personality, you have a pretty good idea how the movie will turn out, so the whole second half of this disquieting two-act drama starts to feel a little undercooked.

The intense themes of power, aging and sacrificed womanhood, and the sturdy performances of Channing and Stiles do buoy the picture until the finish line. But by the time it gets there some of the wind has gone out of its sails.


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