Published December 6, 2001
In The Business of Strangers, Stockard Channing plays Julie Styron, a hard-charging businesswoman — a “Bully Broad” as I’m told they’re known in Silicon Valley — who, on the merest hint that she is going to be let go by her firm, is already on the phone to Nick (Frederick Weller), a head hunter (or, as he puts it, “Placement Provider”) arranging for him to meet her in the out-of-town city where she is currently making a sales presentation to a less-than-enthusiastic board of directors. As it happens, her “tech person,” a young woman called Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) shows up late for the presentation and Julie, stressed out by her career anxieties, blames her for its failure and fires her on the spot.
Already at this stage we know there is something funny about Paula. Although she tells Julie that her plane was late, a shot of her sitting in the airport suggests that she is lying. Then, when she is fired, she calls out after Julie, “Hey, überfrau!” and mockingly repeats back to her her insincere words of appreciation to the unappreciative board: “The pleasure was all mine, Bob. I hope we can do it again some time.” Julie ignores her to concentrate on what Nick might have to offer her. One company, Pacific Net, is looking, he says, but he thinks they are about to go belly-up. He could get her something in Japan. . .
“I don’t have to go to Japan to get stepped on just because I’ve got tits. I can do that right here in my native tongue,” she answers tartly. She makes Nick promise that he is not already looking for her replacement.
But when she turns up at the dinner to which she has been summoned by the boss, it is to find that she is not to be fired but rather is being made c.e.o. Even Nick is impressed. “We could use this to leverage the Pacific Net job,” he tells her.
“I thought you said they were going belly up.”
“With all due respect,” he says with a smirk, “I didn’t know then that I was talking to chief executive material.”
Julie returns to the hotel bar to relax and there meets Paula, whose flight has been canceled on account of bad weather. Relieved of anxiety about her job and in an expansive mood, she apologizes for her abruptness and tells the younger woman that she is not fired. Paula, however, is not exactly grateful. “It’s only a money job,” she tells her. Her real calling is as a writer. She proposes to write non-fiction stories. “I prefer the messiness of real life,” she tells Julie. When Julie offers to buy her a drink, she demands an expensive cognac.
“That’s twenty dollars a glass,” says the waiter doubtfully.
“Make it a double,” says Paula defiantly.
Though she has a bad attitude — and we see her helping herself to some of Julie’s Valium pills while she is using the bathroon — Julie takes a shine to her, perhaps (we are not told) because she sees herself in her. The nature of the bond between the two women is left to our imaginations, but the sense of being tough, independent gals together in a man’s world presumably has something to do with it. At any rate, the two of them proceed to exercise and swim together, to play a girlish prank on some stuffy businessmen staying in the hotel and finally to retire to the bar to drink — Scotch, which is said to be “a man’s drink.”
While they are there, who should appear to join them but Nick, whose plane has also been delayed. He offers to buy them drinks, but Paula quickly disappears to the ladies’ room. When Julie seeks her out, she tells her that she knows Nick and doesn’t want to be around him. They return to Julie’s suite and a tearful Paula at length claims that a friend of hers was raped by Nick. When Nick comes to Julie’s door, wondering what happened to her, Paula seizes on Julie’s suggestion that Nick ought to be taught a lesson and invites him in, drugging his drink with the stolen Valium.
What follows is a stripping away of the façade of toughness displayed by both women as they give vent to their feelings of frustration and anger in the presence of this comatose representative of male oppression who may or may not be at death’s door. Or so it seems. At the height of their emotional pitch, Paula confesses that it was she and not any friend who was raped by Nick, and for a moment the film allows us — and Julie — the easy out of excusing to ourselves all of Paula’s weirdness and hostility by the trauma she has supposedly endured.
But the twist in the film’s tail is something that you can see coming a long way off, and we are left with an uncomfortable sense that we have not understood something that we were ready to claim understanding of. If the film had worked harder to make us regard Paula as something other than a psycho, to make us understand her, it might have been more interesting as a critique (which to some extent it is) of feminist assumptions about male “oppression.” As it is it is just, like her, weird.