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Okay, in THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS two women seek to get revenge on a man who has been accused (falsely, as it turns out) of rape. It is a small, but key part of the story. Their improvised scheme involves drugging him, taking him to a semi-public place, stripping him of his clothes and writing obscenities all over his body. Sexual humiliation, with the intent of leaving him shamed and degraded. A symbolic rape, as it were. But, they only strip him to his underwear. Why? Since the point of their actions is revenge and humiliation, then why not strip him naked? And why leave his clothes behind? As is, the poor guy wakes up, cleans up, dresses and apparently goes on like nothing happened. Instead of being a violation of his psyche as much as his body, the incident proves to be little more than a fraternity prank of no real consequence. The film wants to show the women doing a bad thing, but not bad enough to lose viewer sympathy.
That is the problem with this artsy, but feather-weight film: It never goes far enough. This man, who, up until he is taken advantage of, appears to be a cordial and sympathetic businessman, is cruelly victimized for no real reason, yet he doesn't seem to suffer anything more than a little bit of confusion. One of the women involved in the stunt is a newly chosen CEO of a major corporation and she seems a bit embarrassed at finding out she has been duped into risking her entire career for nothing, but that's all. The other woman, who devised this pseudo-sexual assault as a way of humiliating the first woman, doesn't even seem to get any great pleasure out of her petty manipulations. We see an act of kidnapping and sexual assault -- felonies -- but it seems to be meaningless, even though it becomes the focal point of the film.
Stockard Channing is Julie, the executive. Julia Stiles is Paula, a corporate underling who has displeased Julie and was subsequently fired. Forced to stay at a generic airport hotel while on an out-of-town business trip, the two get to know each other. Part of this emotional, semi-feminist, pseudo-lesbian bonding includes targeting Nick (Frederick Weller), a corporate head hunter and a business acquaintance of Julie's. Being a male, Nick presumably represents a common opponent for the women, which is amplified to the level of enemy when Paula maliciously labels him as a rapist as well.
The film embraces a feminist mindset, then debunks it. Three quarters of the film seems to suggest that Julie and Paula have a bond simply because they are both women -- even though they have little else in common -- and this culminates in their assault on Nick. The film also plays on the expectations of the audience, which has been conditioned to assume that women have a special bond and are justified at any act of rage against men (the "Thelma & Louise" syndrome). But, as we see, the abuse of Nick is not justified and is based on a myth that the mere suggestion of rape unites all women. In fact, this supposed gender bond allows Julie to trust Paula, who she has known for less than 24 hours -- and has already revealed herself to be exploitive and dishonest -- over Nick, a long-time associate who shows Julie nothing but friendliness and support. The film's twist reveals that the two women really don't have any unique sisterhood at all, and Paula was exploiting a feminist myth. Indeed, Julie seems to have done quite well in the "man's world" of business and really has more in common with Nick than with Paula.
But, having the nerve to take on an anti-feminist position, the film backs away from it timidly. Nick is victimized, but not too much. Julie betrays Nick, but not to the point where it costs her anything; indeed, even though she treats Nick despicably, the film tries to makes us more sorry for Julie. Though the film falls short of showing Paula to be evil or psychotic, it sidesteps her obvious hatred of men in favor of her sexual and social jealousy and resentment of Julie. Gender politics propels the story, but remains only an understated theme in the narrative.
As a character study, the film is not so bad. Channing is, as always, the picture of natural acting grace and subtlety. As Julie, she is always prepared for the worse to happen and is emotionally unprepared for enjoying life when it doesn't. Stiles is properly uncomfortable to watch as the perpetually duplicitous Paula, but her character never makes much sense. It is not believable that someone so irresponsible would end up assisting a high-powered executive. Maybe she is meant to be Julie's alter ego; a representation of Julie as a younger woman, or symbolic of Julie's pent up rage and resentment against men. Either way, she is less a person than a plot contrivance. Weller has the thankless job of being just an ordinary guy whose actions are open to interpretation. If he is innocent, he has our sympathy; if he is guilty the women have our empathy. The film lacks the courage to play the character either way, and Weller himself is left walking a tightrope for the benefit of the plot, making Nick seem oddly untrustworthy, even though he is given nothing to do or say that would support this.
THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS looks good and has solid performances. But like the shiny glass and chrome world it portrays, it is all superficial veneer. The action goes too far to make it merely a character study, but not far enough to make it a psychological thriller. It is a film that seems to be greatly angry about something, but is too unsure of itself to fully vent its rage.
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