Near the beginning of this imaginative film when Paula Murphy (20-year-old Julia Stiles) and Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) meet in earnest, Paula tells Julie what she really does in life: "I'm a writer," she says. I write short stories about things that I experience. Nonfiction. "Fiction is too stupid, too neat. I like the sloppiness of real life." What we don't know at the time is that Paula is about to improvise just such a tale involving Julie, a tale that challenges the middle-aged executive's lifestyle and her assumptions about herself and inspires her to do things she wouldn't normally do.
This is the "business of strangers." And this is the story within the story. Paula is the diabolical kind of person who is dedicated to introducing people to themselves so that she can watch them twist, a privileged, under-achieving Ivy League girl with machinations. Julie is a community college workaholic who never had time for a family, or love, or self-discovery, a lonely woman whose life is a parade of sterile hotel rooms, anonymous strangers, alcohol and pills. Although the story drags in a little in spots, the overall effect is edgy and fascinating, and the contrast between the principals keeps us wondering who is going to come out on top.
The action really begins when Julie, in an expansive mood with some booze and her promotion to CEO, shows some interest in the girl she just fired for being late to a presentation. It's not clear what sort of interest that is. Julie responds as a spider coaxing a fly into the web, but it's not clear what she's up to. They go to the pool and play around, get on the treadmills at the gym and run. They go back to Julie's suite and drink some more.
At this point I'm afraid that the film will deteriorate into a politically correct cliché of some kind, or a lesbian wish-fulfillment debacle, without anything really happening. Enter (or actually re-enter) Nick Harris (Fred Weller) who, Paula has confided to Julie, raped her best friend when they were undergraduates in Boston. This excites Julie's loathing and so the two women play out an improvised and drunken revenge scenario that is a bit over the top, but psychologically correct.
After some intense emotional interaction, the film resolves surprisingly and rather neatly, allowing us to see that Paula has indeed spun out a tale whose moral might be, "watch out for young foxes." The scene in the airport emphasizes this, with Julie and Nick sheepishly sorting out last night's bizarre debauchery while trying to maintain their dignity, with Paula poised brazenly in plain sight wearing earphones, a smug silhouette in the distance.
Patrick Stettner wrote the script, which, judging from the series of stationary settings and the limited cast, I suspect was originally a stage play. He also directed in a business-like manner, getting a saucy and smirk-laden performance from Stiles, whose originality and talent is obvious, and a steady and believable one from veteran Channing. Incidentally, Channing is a Harvard graduate who is perhaps best known for her performance as Betty Rizzo in Grease (1978) playing a teenager when she was 32-years-old! Here she braves some close camera work that starkly reveals the 57-year-old actress beneath the makeup. Yet, as always, Stockard Channing pleases us.
But see this for Julia Stiles, a thoroughly professional player, whose arrogant, sneering, and edgy style add spice to, and partially disguise, her youthful mastery of the fine art of acting.