In The Business of Strangers, a female exec gets her revenge on men
As Abigail Bartlet on "The West Wing," Stockard Channing is a liberal president's dream come true ' smart, funny, sexy, argumentative and way out ahead of everybody else on health care. It's as if Hillary Clinton hadn't had to change her hairstyle every week, hadn't had to make that comment about baking chocolate-chip cookies. Channing's Abigail is very much her own woman, and some of the most enjoyable parts of the show are when she and Martin Sheen's Jed are going mano-a-womano, a battle-of-the-sexes civics lesson set to screwball rhythms. Before "West Wing," Channing, whom some have referred to as the First Lady of the American Theater, had never gotten the movie and TV roles she deserved. She always seemed smarter than the women she was playing. Smarter and funnier and sexier. And now she's taken on The Business of Strangers.
Written and directed by Patrick Stettner, The Business of Strangers stars Channing as Julie Styron, the vice president of an unnamed investment company. Well into her 50s, Julie has spent years lugging her luggage from one airport hotel to another, packing and unpacking her aspirations. No husband, no kids ' life as one long layover. And lately, Julie's been scraping her fingernails against the glass ceiling. When the movie opens, she thinks she's about to be fired. Instead, she's promoted to CEO, a turn of events that leaves her both speechless and a little bit reckless. Earlier that day, a young tech assistant (Julia Stiles, who more than holds her own) had arrived late for a presentation, and Julie fired her on the spot. Now, with the whole company at her beck and call, she's feeling more generous. And who should appear at the hotel bar but that selfsame tech assistant?
Stiles' Paula is either the Julie of tomorrow or the Paula of today, a tough-as-nails career woman or a psychopath. Either way, Julie's drawn to her, maybe because Paula reminds her of herself when she was that age or maybe because Paula represents a part of Julie that's had to be kept under wraps, the part that didn't want to keep smiling while eating all that shit over the years. Paula couldn't smile if her life depended on it. So let's call theirs a mentor-protÃgÃ relationship and keep an open mind about who's the mentor and who's the protÃgÃ. When Julie invites Paula back to her hotel room, some sexual sparks fly between them, but sex is only the opening move in Paula's power play. The question is, does Julie still have what it takes to win this little mind game? Are her reflexes snapping like they should? Or is she too weary, too deep into her umpteenth Dewar's on the rocks?
A kind of rejoinder to Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, The Business of Strangers imagines a corporate world so rife with strife that Machiavelli himself would be eaten for lunch. In the Company of Men, you may recall, involved a pair of mid-level corporate types who vented their frustration with the Bitch Goddess Success by psychologically destroying a woman from the typing pool. The high- and low-level corporate types in The Business of Strangers resort to something similar, luring to Julie's hotel room a young businessman who Paula says raped a friend of hers, then rendering him unconscious, then tarring and feathering him, metaphorically speaking. That Paula takes the lead throughout this crime spree should not blind us to the fact that Julie, at certain crucial moments, seems to be having the time of her life. A career's worth of resentment is bubbling up from her spleen.
Is there any way to see The Business of Strangers as a positive portrayal of women in the marketplace? I can think of only one way, which is that Julie and Paula make better men than the men do. Of course, look what they have to give up to do it ' Julie a life outside of work, Paula a life inside the law. Channing, who teeters on high heels throughout the movie (she always seems about to fall from a great height), gives Julie enough heart to avoid comparisons to Demi Moore's man-eater in Disclosure. And she has that way of letting anxiety seep through the cracks of her brittle faÃade, which has us pulling for Julie to get out of this jam and get back to work. But why is that the best we can hope for this woman? Why is she denied a full life? Is it because the movie was written and directed by a man? Strange business, indeed. And a strange, though enjoyable, movie for Channing to be involved in.