Corporate endgame

Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles go toe to toe for all the marbles.

Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) has the power. Or so she thinks. In the course of an average day of traveling to a new city and making a presentation to potential clients — something she does exceedingly well — a call on her cell phone unnerves her. The company’s CEO has requested Julie’s schedule and is now flying in for a face-to-face talk.

Suddenly, the infrastructure of her professional life seems inordinately fragile. And since she has no real other life, Julie hits the panic button and calls in Nick Harris (Frederick Weller), a corporate headhunter, to provide her with options before her power meeting. Julie’s an expert strategist: She wouldn’t have gotten as far as she has without knowing how to play the angles. But she doesn’t call this one right at all.

Walking into a dinner at the restaurant of her stylishly anonymous airport hotel, Julie is ready to be fired, but is promoted instead. In fact, she is now the new chief executive officer. Having unexpectedly broken through the glass ceiling, Julie isn’t jubilant. She’s numb.

Writer-director Patrick Stettner makes a confident feature debut with The Business of Strangers and gingerly walks a fine line in his portrayal of Julie. Here’s a woman who entered the work force at a time when Hollywood could make musicals declaring that “a secretary is not a toy” and the only female faces in boardrooms were serving coffee. This striver got her formal degree from a Michigan community college, but she was really educated by climbing the corporate ladder rung by rung, working doubly hard to convince her male colleagues that she was even half as good as them.

Stockard Channing — an actress with a formidable presence who also allows vulnerability to ripple just beneath her tough exterior — makes Julie more than a white-collar cliché. Beneath her carefully tailored casual corporate wear beats the heart of a born fighter.

All this is important to mention because of the subsequent events of the same evening initiated by Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles), who works for the same company but much lower down the food chain. Earlier, Paula had arrived 45 minutes late for an audiovisual presentation at the client’s office, and was summarily fired by Julie, who hissed her hostile instructions into an ever-present phone, her umbilical cord to the office. (What does this company do? Sell software or other information technology? Stettner asserts that the product matters little — it’s the manipulation of clients and the accumulation of power that really counts.)

When Paula’s flight is grounded, she ends up at the hotel bar with a more contrite Julie, and they engage in a form of female bonding which could be deemed the intimacy of strangers, one which cuts through polite banter and gets to the heart of lives built on compromise.

The Dartmouth-educated Paula, with her prominently placed tribal tattoos and carefully chosen feminine androgyny wear, is to Julie just another example of privilege abused: born with everything, but eager to play the victim. But Paula (aided by the intelligent intensity of Stiles’ performance) is more formidable than she might appear. A writer of personal nonfiction (because she enjoys the messiness of real life), Paula comes across as the type who would stir things — and people — up just so she’d have something to write about.

After a happy drunk at the bar, the women head back to Julie’s suite followed by a third wheel, the ultraslick Nick, whose past exploits become the impetus for these women to express their barely suppressed anger at his expense. Their fast friendship — forged through circumstance and convenience — is soon put to a high-stakes test, but Stettner wisely keeps the issue of who comes off the winner in this subtle power play tantalizingly ambiguous.

The Business of Strangers charts a long night full of strategic shifts, biting commentary and the harsh revelation of submerged truths. But the most surprising thing here is that nothing Julie and Paula reveal to each other comes as a surprise to themselves. These are women deeply familiar with their own hidden capabilities, women who know that the lid to Pandora’s box can be opened — and closed — at will.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Click here to visit the official The Business of Strangers Web site.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

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