What Women Want?

A First-Time Male Director Markets His Vision to the Other Half

Everyone wants to know what goes on between women, don't they? What they talk about when men aren't around? What happens in the sauna at the gym? Slumber parties? Speaking as a girl with great girlfriends (and as a believer in the superiority of females as a group), I'm just as interested in this stuff as men are. And I'm totally down with any movie that wants to explore these questions carefully. In The Business of Strangers, first-time writer-director Patrick Stettner at least explores them innocently and open-heartedly--so much so that you can forgive him for not really getting it right.

Stettner's psychological drama concerns two very different women (Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles) who come together for one very weird night in a hotel, where their histories and cultures undergo a dreamlike, almost ritualistic purging. Channing is Julie Styron, a seasoned businesswoman who has spent her life in conference rooms and airplanes, chatting up clients, working her aerobicized ass off, fighting for a place in the male-dominated corporate realm. She has meaty, tough-looking hands and an aura of loneliness--the result, apparently, of struggling for 30 years to master the old boys' game. (Thankfully, this is getting a bit outdated as an archetype.)

In the company of menopause: Stockard Channing in 'The Business of Strangers'
JoJo Whilden
In the company of menopause: Stockard Channing in 'The Business of Strangers'

During a business trip, Julie learns that she has been made CEO. That night in the hotel, she celebrates with her saucy young assistant Paula (Stiles). The two begin a competitive acquaintance, starting with an unofficial treadmill race in the hotel gym--and Julie wins. And this is where things get a little funky. The scene feels very much like something that might happen between two men. But as a symbolic scene of female competition, it doesn't quite work: Women are generally more subtle about competition than this. (Ditto the rather stagy lesbian innuendo throughout.)

It's not a big deal, but the interlude does remind you that you're watching a movie about women that was written and directed by a man, and somewhat voyeuristically, too. Take, for example, the sauna scene (talk about your inner sancta!). After running, the two women sit sweating, kinda checking each other out, and Julie tells the story of her first hot flash--which is, as she says, depressing. Channing performs the scene beautifully, but there's a sense of pity in the script that feels predictable and off-base. (For American women of Julie's class, menopause is often the harbinger of calmer and more powerful days.) Then again, it's cool to watch a scene with women talking about menopause at all--or to watch a movie with a menopausal hero. For that matter, it's lovely how the camera lingers over Channing: respectfully, curiously, unafraid of her age, her sun-worn skin, and her apparent face-lift scars. Why don't more movies show women's bodies as they are? (Even Stiles's physique, so MTV-ready in other films, looks human here.)

Alas, the real life of the film takes place after the two women have gotten trashed in the hotel bar, Julie's headhunter (Frederick Weller) shows up, and shit happens--none of it violent or actually hurtful, but all of it very weird. Clearly, these women have experienced their share of abuse, in whatever form, at the hands of men. But again, there's that feeling: Something is slightly...off. At least Stettner's trying. He really wants to get it right between women. And in that sense, he's a lot farther along than Neil LaBute or David Mamet, with whom he shares a certain anthropological vibe. Still, if Stettner or any of his contemporaries need it, my mom has got an army of menopausal heroes who'd make amazing script doctors.

 
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