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The Business of Strangers

It’s a dildo that first bonds Paula (Julia Stiles), a new office temp, to Julie (Stockard Channing), the boss who has just fired her for arriving late to an out-of-town business meeting. Matters improve later when Julie, no longer afraid of being fired herself (the company has made her CEO instead), rehires Paula and the two connect at a hotel bar over drinks and talk of men, those shits. In a crowded hotel elevator, Julie and Paula aim for maximum male embarrassment by making up a story about strapping on a dildo, a black one.

It’s a key scene in a maliciously funny and keenly observant movie — director-writer Patrick Stettner makes a potent feature debut — that serves its humor dark and without artificial sweeteners. In a long night’s journey into day, Julie and the younger but just as conniving Paula will find a sacrificial lamb in Nick, a cocky corporate headhunter deftly played by Frederick Weller.

At first, you might think that Stettner is just doing a gender reverse on Neil LaBute’s groundbreaking 1997 film, In the Company of Men. A closer look reveals something less ferocious, more humane. It helps, of course, that Channing and Stiles are live wires. To say that Stiles (Save the Last Dance) holds her own against Channing as their characters play power games involving sex, class, education and cruelty is a high compliment indeed. Channing, a sorceress onstage (Joe Egg) and well used on TV (she’s the feisty first lady on The West Wing), hasn’t had the best luck on film — except for repeating her stage role onscreen in Six Degrees of Separation, for which she won an Oscar nomination. As Julie, eyes alive to every nuance of humor and heartbreak, of rage and regret, Channing reigns supreme; she’s a wonder to behold.

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