For 1 hour and 25 minutes, Patrick Stettner, the writer and director of The Business of Strangers, spins a tight and introspective tale of the strange shit that can happen in a hotel when two strangers completely open up to each other. I know this sounds vague, but its the best way I can describe this movie. The Business of Strangers is a small indie film released in 2001 starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. It followed a spate of movies that addressed the humdrum existence of upper middle-class white collar lives led by white people (a more recent film that explores this theme is Up in the Air). It poses the question of what do our lives actually mean and are we really happy or do we just pretend to be?

Stockard Channing plays a single and ambitious middle-aged sales executive who, in the beginning of the film, has just fired her new assistant (Julia Stiles) for being late to a client sales pitch. After her pitch, Channing discovers that she has just been promoted to CEO of her company. She heads back to her hotel to celebrate the good news and lo and behold, she spots the fired assistant at the hotel bar. Feeling bad (and in a good mood because of her promotion) she apologizes to the assistant and they end up drinking the night away. The two end up in Channing’s hotel room where things begin to get a bit complex.

Channing looks and acts perfect as the executive. Her character is very similar to the stereotypical woman exec in the way she styles her hair to the way she conservatively dresses and the way she acts. She is a woman operating in a man’s world and over the years she has adapted to that world in order to succeed. However, under her facade, she is a lonely person who has sacrificed a lot to get to where she is in her career. Although she has attained her ultimate career goal, she isn’t satisfied. She realizes that there is still something missing in her life even though she can’t yet identify what it is.

Enter Julia Stiles. Stiles is a talented young actress who stands apart from the pack of young Hollywood actors today. Unlike her young colleagues, Stiles has demonstrated intellect in both her career and life choices. She plays the fired assistant in The Business of Strangers. Although Stiles’ performance feels a bit stilted (get it? Stiles and stilted?), her character is interesting and holds your attention throughout the movie. Her interaction with Channing’s character creates a lot of nervous tension in the film. Although the two get along well when they re-encounter each other at the hotel, you know there is something beguiling about Stiles that will reveal itself at the end of the film.

The filmmaker does a great job in how efficiently he tells his story. Again, the film is only 1 hour and 25 minutes, but in that span of time, Stettner tells a compelling story that falters a little in Act III. For the first 2 Acts of the film, you are taken on a journey in which you know things are not going to be fine by the end. You know there is something more to Stiles’ character than what you initially get, but you don’t yet know what it is. The first 2 Acts keep you guessing at what her angle is and how this unlikely friendship is going to conclude.

What I especially liked about The Business of Strangers is how the themes of the film are appropriately explored within a typical hotel setting. The setting contributes to the theme, which basically questions the life path so many of us feel compelled to take, thinking that its the only and best way to make ourselves happy. However, as interesting as the theme may be, it also proves to be the film’s downfall by the third Act. The plot seemed to grind to a halt and take a backseat to the message the filmmaker wanted to convey to the audience. I think this was treated a little too heavy handed with the characters addressing the film’s issues/message too directly instead of allowing the narrative to explain the issues and message to the audience indirectly.

All in all, The Business of Strangers is a interesting little indie film that lends itself to an evening rental. Its not the ground-shaker that American Beauty was or how critics are treating Up in the Air to be, but it covers the same themes from a female perspective, which is unique. It is also a nice showcase of Stockard Channing’s and Julia Stiles’ talents.

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