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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/16/02

The Business of Strangers
2001 (2002) - IFC Films (MGM)

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Business of Strangers

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/D

Specs and Features

84 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, full-frame (1.33:1), dual-layered (no layer switch), keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), language: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and Spanish, Close Captioned

"I don't need to go to Japan to get stepped on just because I have tits. I've got a big dose of that right here in my native tongue."

Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers is a bitter cat and mouse game that borrows some from the David Mamet school of fork-tongued delivery, and Neil Labute's brutal assault on workplace competition in In the Company of Men. Its subjects are corporate veteran Julia Styron (Stockard Channing) and newbie Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles). Julia is a tough as nails executive who fought her way to the top and is fighting even harder to stay there. When Paula, her new assistant, arrives late on a business trip, Julia immediately arranges to have her employment with the company terminated. But after subsequent conversations with her secretary (and best friend), she fears that her own job is in danger and seeks the services of business headhunter Nick Harris (Frederick Weller).

As Julia and Paula put their rocky start behind them, they exchange personal stories with each other. It's here, toward the middle section of the film, that it takes a turn toward the vindictive, and becomes a revenge fantasy. A little advice on staying strong in a male-dominated field, a brief mention of past sexual violence and a whole lot of scotch later, the two exact retribution on an apparent rapist and verbally rip each other to shreds in the process. I wasn't completely sold on this portion of the film. The film's time schedule is a short 24 hours, and I don't know if even a couple of bottles of scotch and 30 years of resentment could lead to this degree of potential self-destruction. Paula divulges early on that she likes "the sloppiness of real life," and perhaps Stettner does too. Fortunately, he knows how to clean it up a bit, and the movie's ending saves this slapdash section by piecing together some of the less persuasive aspects of an otherwise first-rate feature.

MGM provides both a widescreen and full frame presentation on the DVD release of The Business of Strangers. The widescreen image is accurately framed, and the open matte full-frame option reveals more visual information at the top and bottom of the picture. Contrast is strikingly smooth, resulting in an exceedingly detailed picture that retains a cinematic texture. Much of the film is lit in amber hues that really accent flesh tones, and they're represented beautifully here in the transfer. One of the key sequences in the film takes place in near darkness, and even this scene didn't disappoint in its attention to detail in blacks and shadow delineation. There's barely a speck of grain on the print, and edge enhancement and compression artifacting do not present themselves as detriments to the quality of the picture. This is definitely one of MGM's nicer recent efforts video-wise.

The sole audio option is a minimalist 5.1 mix that focuses most of its energy on maintaining a clear, succinct dialogue track. The Business of Strangers is a talk-heavy film, and the near complete absence of audio action allows you to focus on the discourse between the film's main characters. An occasional, discreet sound effect finds its way into the surround channels from time to time, as does the film's lean, unobtrusive musical score. But the focus here is really on the verbal exchanges between Julie and Paula, and you'd be hard pressed to find any issues at all with that portion of the audio.

The Business of Strangers quietly crept in and out of limited release, and didn't catch the attention of a lot of cinema patrons. MGM has certainly done little to change that, as they've chosen to release the film as a movie-only disc. The lone extra is the theatrical trailer. Strangely enough, MGM offers the trailer in two formats on this DVD: a soft-matted, widescreen transfer, and a full-frame option for those who absolutely cannot stand those pesky black bars if even for a minute or two. I can't for the life of me figure out why MGM found it essential to include both versions for the discriminating home viewer, but it'll please someone, somewhere, I'm sure.

As a film, The Business of Strangers is well worth seeing. The brisk pace of the film keeps it from stretching the material too thin, and the skilled performances from the two leads are one of the clear-cut strong points that director Stettner has to offer. Channing is in top form as always, but Stiles also pleasantly surprised me. She managed to hold her own opposite the stage and screen veteran. As a DVD, you're only going to get your money's worth from a rental. It's about as bare as they come, and its asking price is a little steep for what you get.

Dan Kelly

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