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At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

Dec. 17 to 20

Middle-aged workaholic businesswoman Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) is about to deliver a presentation to an important out-of-town client when she receives word that, in her absence, there’s been an executive meeting and her company’s CEO is flying out to see her. Assuming that she’s been sacked, she hastily contacts corporate headhunter Nick Harris (Frederick Weller) to help her find another job. Compounding Julie’s anxiety and paranoia, her business meeting is sabotaged when her new technical assistant, young Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles), arrives too late with essential sales material. In a rage, Julie fires Paula and returns to the hotel, only to learn that she’s been promoted. Contrite, she reinstates Paula and buys her a drink. During the course of a long, drunken evening, the two women indulge in an increasingly convoluted and bitter power struggle, a conflict into which Nick has the misfortune to blunder.

Sleekly visualized and filled with enigmatic silences, the opening reels of The Business of Strangers, writer-director Patrick Stettner’s feature debut, are remarkably self-assured. Abetted by cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci and production designer Dina Goldman, he captures the polished sterility of corporate life—impersonally designed steel-and-glass airports, boardrooms, and hotel suites. (I haven’t seen architecture used this astutely since Jacques Tati created a visionary modernist dystopia in his 1967 masterpiece, Playtime.) Stettner is equally adept at eliciting forceful performances from his cast. Channing’s intriguingly puckered face, which, from various angles, alternately recalls a ’60s Elizabeth Taylor and Kathie Lee Gifford, projects Julie’s fierce determination to defend her turf, won at the sacrifice of a personal life, as well as her increasing suspicion that she might have chosen the wrong path. Tall, trim, tattooed, and toilet-mouthed, Stiles conveys the rebelliousness of a young woman born to the privileges that Julie has struggled so hard to attain. Caught between them, Weller exudes lounge-lizard sliminess as a manipulator who profits from the misfortunes of others.

Stettner’s screenplay provides his antagonists with plausible backstories. Educated at an obscure community college, childless divorcée Julie has single-mindedly shattered the glass ceiling of her corporation, balancing tenaciousness with seductive feminine wiles attained by rigorous exercise and grooming. Man-hating Ivy League grad Paula holds the corporate world and its prerogatives in contempt, regarding her underling job as a temporary means to fulfill her ambition to become a writer. Combatants in a boozy psychological rivalry, the two employ all the weapons at their disposal—cunning, status, experience, sexuality—to achieve dominance.

Unfortunately, at its midpoint, The Business of Strangers abandons subtlety for over-the-top sensationalism, resulting in a loss of credibility. Nick becomes a pawn in the women’s combat and is spirited away to an empty room in a wing of the hotel undergoing renovation. There, Paula and Julie unite briefly to avenge themselves on their captive, for both the masculine indignities Julie has suffered in her corporate climb and for what Paula has endured as the prey of lascivious males. Then, having exorcized their feminist rage in feverish ways that challenge disbelief, they resume their own hostilities, leading to a muted, morning-after fadeout.

The Business of Strangers, the female counterpart of Neil LaBute’s gratuitously nasty, largely unconvincing In The Company Of Men, never quite recovers from its excursion into excessive theatrics. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling film, sparked by tart dialogue and filled with ambiguities that it shrewdly refuses to resolve. Has Julie’s ascent to power been attained at too high a personal cost? Is Paula’s assault on her driven by envy, gender politics, generational mistrust, or sexual attraction? Is Nick guilty of the carnal violence that Paula accuses him of, and, if not, does he possess the capacity for such brutality? Like the people we confront in everyday life, and refreshingly unlike the stick figures that populate the majority of contemporary films, Stettner’s characters leave us with as many questions as answers.

Moviegoers fond of comic mockumentaries—This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and, especially, Waiting for Guffman—won’t want to miss Griffin Dunne’s Lisa Picard Is Famous, an often uproarious satire of the quest for celebrity. Director Dunne plays Andrew, a filmmaker shooting a documentary about Lisa (Laura Kirk), a young actress poised to grab her 15 minutes of fame. Having won attention in a sexy breakfast-cereal commercial, she’s snagged a showy one-scene role as Melissa Gilbert’s drug-addict sister in a forthcoming telemovie, A Phone Call for Help. In anticipation of Lisa’s ascent to stardom, Andrew chronicles her daily life, notably her relationship with best friend Tate Kelly (Nat DeWolf), a struggling gay fellow actor preparing an autobiographical performance piece about homophobia. When Lisa’s career doesn’t pan out as expected, hapless Andrew, who also has eyes for fame, finds his movie going down the tubes along with her.

Dunne apes the formal strategies of documentaries, including handheld camera and talking-head commentaries by, among others, Linda Blair, Carrie Fisher, Buck Henry, and Fisher Stevens. (He also includes amusing “accidental” encounters with Sandra Bullock, Spike Lee, and Charlie Sheen.) Drawing on their own experiences, stars and screenwriters Kirk and DeWolf illuminate their script with insiders’ awareness of the narcissism, insecurity, and self-delusion that inform the lives of showbiz hopefuls. Dunne, the son of preening celebrity journalist Dominick Dunne, also has firsthand knowledge of the hunger for notoriety. He sprinkles the movie with inside jokes, including two scenes with L.M. Kit Carson playing David Holzman, the character he portrayed in Jim McBride’s groundbreaking 1968 faux-cinéma-vérité feature, David Holzman’s Diary, an ingenious movie about a man seeking truth by filming his own life.

Kirk’s neurotic Lisa vividly, often painfully, embodies the mixture of self-doubt and self-obsession that drives young performers in their search for success. But DeWolf walks off with the film in the excerpts we’re shown of Tate’s confessional one-man show, a protracted whine that he falteringly delivers clad only in briefs. Although the opening-night audience regards his performance as an embarrassment, inexplicably enthusiastic newspaper reviews transform it into a cult hit, attracting filmmakers in pursuit of a hot screen property. (We subsequently see scenes of the even more ludicrous movie version, starring Sheen and Mira Sorvino, and directed by Lee, who cravenly turn Tate’s script into an absurd jeremiad indicting society for its mistreatment of heterosexuals.)

Lisa Picard Is Famous collapses in its final reel because of a thorny structural problem that its makers can’t figure out how to resolve. When Lisa’s career derails, her washout not only ruins Andrew’s documentary but also weakens Dunne’s movie. Lacking a comedic payoff, his mockumentary evaporates, concluding with a whimper instead of the hoped-for bang. Nevertheless, it contains enough malicious wit to satisfy most moviegoers, especially those who have harbored acting ambitions or suffered through relationships with thespians. CP