- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

''The Business of Strangers" is amateurish dirty business, a first feature that could only justify its unsavory pretext by turning into a hard-core porn caprice in celebration of blithely mercenary lesbians. Lacking the courage of such tendencies, it remains a sad-sack tease that will be lucky to loiter around the stray art-house.
Stockard Channing is cast as a businesswoman named Julie Styron, who ends up stranded by bad weather at an airport hotel after a rotten day on the road. A sales pitch has been sabotaged by the late arrival of a young temp named Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles), entrusted with the audiovisual aids and cursed with a sinister streak. Julie sacks Paula and retreats to the airport. She considers the day such a loss that she summons a corporate headhunter, Frederick Weller as Nick Harris, in hopes of starting a job search.
To her amazement (and ours), Julie discovers that she is being kicked upstairs to become chief executive officer. A night of potential brooding turns celebratory. She hangs out a bit with Nick and strangers encountered in the hotel bar. She tries to make amends to Paula, who is also stranded and conveniently hanging around. A big mistake, since Paula takes this as a cue for blackmail, sexual and otherwise. She starts coming on to the older woman, not necessarily susceptible but suddenly complacent. It amuses Julie, for example, to play along with the younger woman's teases when the pair are being overheard by men in elevators.
The budding acquaintance turns terminally ugly as Julie gets sozzled and Paula masterminds the sapping of Nick, whom she claims to recognize as an unpunished date rapist from college days. After sedating him, the gals lug him to a floor sealed off for renovations. They scrawl obscene remarks on his slumbering torso and simulate some date-raping of their own with the unwitting victim.
Paula begins taking incriminating Polaroids. The $64 question: Will Julie's head clear in time to call the kid's bluff and kick her out?
In fabricating this would-be lewd yet cringing polemic, writer-director Patrick Stettner seems to be aspiring to the status of a sex-starved, poor man's Dr. Frankenstein. Instead of dealing in cadavers, he deals in the ghosts of mercifully forgotten feminist plays. The idea that some kind of pivotal power struggle is being enacted by the co-stars, representing the "struggling free woman" of successive generations, seems insulting rather than thematically provocative.
Miss Channing and Miss Stiles can consider themselves fortunate if "Strangers" is the worst obscurity they ever let themselves fall for. Ironically, Mr. Stettner is their temp from hell. He lured them into a bum project, sure enough, but there's no reason for anyone to dwell on the humiliation of it all.

1/2*
TITLE: "The Business of Strangers"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; allusions to sexual abuse and blackmail; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Patrick Stettner, cinematography by Teo Maniaci, production design by Dina Goldman, costume design by Kasia Walicka Maimone and Dawn Weisberg, and music by Alexander Lasarenko
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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