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IN SHORT: With a bit more work, it would've made a great stage play. [Rated R for strong violence and some sexuality. 83 minutes]
Once upon a time it was possible for a jet-setting salesperson to move like a maniac and do presentations in three cities in a given day. Not to mention meetings at breakfast, lunch and dinner. We don't know if that's feasible, post 9-11. That's why we follow the first rule of movie goer-dom and suspend our beliefs in anything approaching reality. So we'll assign that knowledge of three cities a day salesmanship behavior to Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) and pat Ms. Channing for behaving like many of the sales folk we've known in our life.
This gender neutral stuff is exhausting. Don't waste your emails complaining.
We're not kidding when we say we've made the acquaintance of salesmen like Channing's Styron. They don't become friends because they're never in the same place for more than a day or two at a time, if that much. After enough years at her unspecified company selling an unspecified product, Styron gets a call from the C.E.O., asking for a last minute meeting. He's coming to her. Years of experience coupled with the self-awareness that middle aged women are a rare commodity in the sales game prepare Styron for the worst. She expects the hammer to come down, hard.
Nor does it help that her new assistant, Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) has shown up forty-five minutes late for her latest presentation, costing here untold amounts of extra commission (not to mention giving the Company another reason to boot her butt over to the unemployment office). Our go-getter snaps open her cell phone and places an urgent call to "placement provider" -- headhunter -- Nick Harris (Frederick Weller). She needs a job and she needs it fast. After all, Zoloft and Valium and Halcion don't come cheap.
Thus begins Patrick Stettner's first feature film, The Business of Strangers, which offers up situations and characters far more interesting than a lot of debuts we've endured. For all of you who read the last two 'graphs, shuddered, and concluded that TBOS is yet another borderline desperate older woman versus fire-in-the-eyes young go-getter, put the notion out of your head. The pair are linked not only by business but also by their relationships, as it were, with Nick. Julie has that business thing. Paula has a long simmering anger at the man who raped her college roommate and was never prosecuted for the crime. She also knows how to push all the buttons her superior has regarding all those things working women let pass by. Out springs a plan of revenge focussed on the wrong victim.
Both Channing and Stiles do fine work. There are battles of class and income and job direction that keep things more than interesting until you hit the Third Act. Then, Stettner drops a couple of surprises on you. One you may see coming. Another is more cleverly hidden. Weller is the weak spot, though he is not the actor that you'll be paying to see. Depending on your age, you've got a good choice.
That being said, this is still too small a story to bust out of the art house. In that area, though, it is much better than the average bear and a good first feature from the writer/director.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Business of Strangers, he would have paid . . .
If you prefer the arthouse, take a date.
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