Business of Strangers, The (2001)

US / 83 minutes / color / IFC, i5, HeadQuarters Dir & Scr: Patrick Stettner Pr: Susan A. Stover, Robert H. Nathan Cine: Teodoro Maniaci Cast: Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles, Frederick Weller, Marcus Giamatti.

On a business trip, software company vice-president Julie Styron (Channing) fires the junior who arrived late at a meeting and thereby embarrassed her, Paula Murphy (Stiles). That night Julie learns from her boss, Robert (Giamatti), that, far from being herself fired, as she’d imagined was imminent, she’s been appointed CEO of the company. Later, Julie discovers that bad weather conditions have grounded Paula’s flight home, and so the two women are stranded overnight in the same airport hotel. So too—although Julie doesn’t yet know it—is Nick Harris (Weller), the “employment consultant” whom Julie summoned when she thought she was out of a job.

Business of Strangers

Julia (Channing) and Paula (Stiles) on their way to dumping the unconscious Nick (Weller).

Julie apologizes to Paula for her earlier fit of temper, and the two women begin a drink-fueled evening together. Paula informs Julie that really she’s not an office dogsbody but a writer—a writer of nonfiction, however, rather than fiction: she prefers the sloppiness of real life as her subject over fiction’s tidiness. It soon becomes evident to us that, for Paula, she uses the real world rather than paper and ink as her literary medium: her “writing” consists of godgaming those around her. She starts with a harmless effort, persuading Julie to join her in a madly risqué conversation that entertains the other passengers of the elevator in which they’re traveling. Soon Julie is for once letting herself be a wild girl, like Paula.

When Nick reappears on the scene, Paula at once freezes up, explaining to Julie privately that she recognizes him as the man who, four years ago, raped a friend of hers at a Boston frat party. Together, Paula and Julie—who figures out that it was Paula herself, not some friend, who was the rape victim—exact a bizarre revenge on the hapless Nick . . .

This is a movie whose noirishness stems from the fact that it’s all about godgaming, a central theme of cinematic (and written) noir even though often not recognized as such. The term “godgaming” was apparently invented by John Fowles to describe the situation in his classic novel The Magus (1965) whereby the narrator, unrealizing, moves through a form of the world that has been almost entirely shaped by the deceptions of those around him. In the classic-era noir CROSSROADS (1942), for example, we find an amnesia victim being godgamed by the bad guys into believing for a while that in the life he’s forgotten he was himself a bad guy, one of the worst.

In The Business of Strangers the person being godgamed is, very obviously, Julie. Afterwards, when she realizes what’s been done to her, her pain is only partly to do with the overt humiliation meted out to her, being far more concerned with her loss, on returning to sobriety and reality, of the irrational freedom she enjoyed for those few hours when she was obeying someone else’s invented, cockeyed rules rather than those that govern the—and in particular her—real world.

The movie’s really a two-hander (Weller spends much of his scant onscreen time unconscious, Giamatti’s role is essentially a cameo) and plays out on a limited number of sets; it’s thus reliant entirely on the performances of the two leads. Luckily, after a slightly creaky start, they both show themselves more than able to carry the piece, Stiles deploying enigmatic half-smiles and expressionless eyes to show her control over and self-distancing from the situation, Channing managing even more effectively to convey the feeling of a woman torn between triumph and despair, and by the realization that she suddenly finds herself having difficulty telling the difference between the two.

On The Business of Strangers

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