Patrick Stettner’s The Business of Strangers , from his own screenplay, is unusual these days, even for an independent film, in that its protagonist is a middle-aged woman climbing the corporate ladder. On a tempestuous day and night in her career, she becomes accidentally involved as a mentor to a sassy younger woman employed by her firm. After a disastrous presentation of her product at an out-of-town board meeting, Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) gets a call on her cell phone that her firm’s C.E.O. is flying in for an unexpected meeting with her. Certain that she’s about to be fired, Julie arranges for headhunter Nick Harris (Frederick Weller) to fly in before her big meeting in order to line up options for her next position.
At her hotel, Julie encounters the young employee whom she brusquely fired earlier for being late with the visual aids for the disastrous presentation. Both women are seen trudging around with their wheeled baggage as figures on a new urban landscape. Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) seems far from crushed by Julie’s abrupt action, which intrigues Julie somewhat, particularly after she has received firsthand news that, far from being fired, she’s been made the new C.E.O. of her company. At last she’s reached the top of the mountain, and her first reaction is panicky confusion. Suddenly realizing how lonely she’s been during her single-minded quest, Julie is more anxious than ever to make contact with another human being, especially a young woman she may have possibly wronged. Paula accepts Julie’s offer to rehire her over a conciliatory drink at the hotel bar, and the two women spend the entire evening together, virtually double-dating with an assortment of itinerant businessmen. Their conversations become a clash of generations in which neither party gives any ground.
When Julie introduces Paula to Nick, the younger woman seems strangely disturbed and rushes to the ladies’ room. Paula says Nick date-raped her friend in college and now pretends not to recognize her. Julie is shocked and disgusted by Nick’s action and agrees to help Paula get revenge. The denouement takes place in Julie’s suite, where things get rapidly out of control. After a borderline-violent final half hour, we are left with a series of ambiguities, the harsh termination of Julie’s relationship with Paula and new uncertainties in Julie’s relationship with Nick. Actually, the voyage is more satisfying than the destination.
Mr. Stettner’s debut production evolved spiritually from his 15-minute thesis film at the Columbia School of the Arts. The film was called Flux and featured Allison Janney, who currently plays the press secretary in The West Wing . He subsequently developed the script for The Business of Strangers at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors’ Labs. The feelings of older women, apart from marriage and parenting, are a strange area of dramatic inquiry for a young male filmmaker, particularly in this male- and youth-oriented period in movie marketing.
The performances of Ms. Channing, Ms. Stiles and Mr. Weller reach a level of drunken melodramatic intensity that is not fully consummated in the anticlimactic narrative. But the film is not exactly a tease; it’s more a spasm of reality and probability. The important thing is that Ms. Channing and Ms. Stiles are evenly matched in their generational duel, with no time taken off to be winningly charming. There is a reversal of sorts, with Julie starting off vulnerable and ending up charitably wise, and Paula starting off wise-ass and ending up wistfully vulnerable. In the process, Mr. Steller has displayed an admirable flair for repartee devoid of malice and misogyny. That alone makes The Business of Strangers worth seeing.
Afghanistan: The 20-Plus-Year War
Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin was produced by Italian filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Giuseppe Petitto, and had its North American premiere at the 2001 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, where it received the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage and commitment in human-rights filmmaking. Filmed over several months from 1999 to 2000, this understandably chaotic film focuses on an Italian surgeon and a war correspondent who join forces to set up an emergency hospital in northern Afghanistan, a country engulfed in war for more than 20 years.
The Taliban took over the country in 1996, and they seem to be on their way out in 2001. Yet Jung is nothing if not timely, relevant and resonant in its heroic humanism in the face of the seemingly endless suffering of the people in this war-ravaged land, and one cannot find much political enlightenment in this often gruesome depiction of the victims of war. How a nation should be fed and governed is not the first priority of the film’s hospital-enclosed humanitarians. What is actually accomplished here is truly Herculean, but it is only the beginning of the huge task that remains. The film takes place before Sept. 11, 2001, but it’s shocking that we have known and cared so little about Afghanistan’s travails during the last two decades.
To Mamet or Not to Mamet?
David Mamet’s Heist , from his own screenplay, can be liked or disliked because of David Mamet or in spite of him. Then again, it may depend on how tired you are of caper films. I find the two robberies here too complicated as cinematic spectacles to generate any suspense. Gene Hackman can sell me just about anything he wants, but Mr. Mamet inflicts extra burdens on him as the unflappable thief who gets the big payoff at the end at the cost of his young wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and a loyal confederate, Don Pincus (Ricky Jay). He also kills his mob nemesis, Bergman (Danny DeVito), and retains the respect of his sidekick, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo). I couldn’t believe any of it on any level, though it could be described as “fun.”
Waking the Dead
Linda Yellen’s The Simian Line , from a screenplay by Gisela Bernice, based on a story by Ms. Yellen and Michael Leeds, begins on a Halloween night in Weehawken, N.J., where four couples are gathered in a festive spirit at the home of Katherine (Lynn Redgrave) and her younger lover, Rick (Harry Connick Jr.). The party is first enlivened and then disrupted by the surprise entrance of Arnita (Tyne Daly), a fortuneteller whom Rick has impishly invited for “entertainment.” The evening ends badly, with Arnita’s prediction that “one couple will be finished by the end of the year.”
Thanks to Ms. Yellen’s casual mise en scene , we don’t immediately realize that two of the guests are ghosts: Edward (William Hurt) is Katharine’s grandfather, who died 80 years ago, and Mae (Samantha Mathis) is a flapper from the Roaring 20′s who has chosen to live her afterlife as spiritedly as she lived her candle-burning-at-both-ends existence in the house next-door to Katharine’s.
The other guests–unfortunately less interesting than the ghosts–are Sandra (Cindy Crawford) and Paul (Jamey Sheridan), a two-career couple yearning for the big break that will land them both in Manhattan, and Marta (Monica Keena) and Billy (Dylan Bruno), Katharine’s Generation X rock ‘n’ roll lodgers who are forced to grow up when Marta has to take custody of her son, little Jimmy.
In the end, Arnita’s dire prediction applies only to Edward and Mae, who were never a real couple anyway. Yet Mr. Hurt and Ms. Mathis achieve a more poignant rapport to the end than any of the other couples. It’s partly the characters and partly the performers who are responsible for generating more feelings in the afterlife than the film’s Weehawken Six achieve in here and now.