Review: 'Nine Perfect Strangers' seeks a cure for its ailments
Hulu series, which stars Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon, can't settle on a consistent tone.
Of the nine supposedly perfect strangers on "Nine Perfect Strangers," three are members of the same family and two are married. That's five people — more than half — who are very much acquainted with at least one other member of the group. Perfect? Not quite. But hey, who's counting?
That attention to detail, or lack thereof, is indicative of "Nine Perfect Strangers" as a whole. The eight episode series, which begins streaming on Hulu on Wednesday, takes a look at wellness, wealth and privilege, topics much more deftly and shrewdly handled by HBO's just-wrapped "The White Lotus." Where "The White Lotus" presented a warped look at the subtleties of class warfare through a dark comic prism, "Nine Perfect Strangers" is a clumsy star-driven project that, scene to scene, is never quite sure what it is. Is it a comedy, a drama, a sharp satire? If you're able to figure it out, be sure to let "Nine Perfect Strangers" know the answer.
The creator here is David E. Kelley, who reteams with Nicole Kidman for their third series together, following "Big Little Lies" and "The Undoing." Here Kidman stars as Masha, a self-help guru who runs a California resort known as Tranquillum House, a new age spa/ retreat/ wellness center where visitors unburden themselves from life's problems and look to emerge as better versions of themselves. The 10-day program includes therapy sessions, team building exercises (trust falls) and field day events (potato sack races) that seem more silly than beneficial (what, there's no dunk tank?), but the place has great reviews, so it's best to go with the program.
Masha is described by one guest as an "amazing, mystical, Eastern Block unicorn," and Kidman plays her with a thick Russian accent that comes and goes. She has a dark past herself; she was shot and left for dead before being saved by Yao (Manny Jacinto), who is now one of her partners in Tranquillum House, along with Delilah (Tiffany Boone). But she's been threatened by vague text messages and is haunted by her past, so it seems she needs a retreat as much as any of the guests.
Those guests include a family, the Marconis (Michael Shannon is the father, Asher Keddie is his wife and Grace Van Patten is his daughter), who are grieving a family suicide; a couple, influencer Jessica (Samara Weaving) and her Lamborghini-driving husband Ben (Melvin Gregg), who are going through marital issues; an author, Frances (Melissa McCarthy) who is at a life and career crossroads; a self-absorbed jerk, Lars (Luke Evans); another self-absorbed jerk, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and Carmel (Regina Hall), a timid, quiet type.
Most of them manage to immediately rub each other the wrong way, especially Frances and Tony, whose childish bickering comes off like playground flirting. They're a step away from passing each other notes and asking to check "yes" if they like one another. (It's McCarthy and Cannavale's third project together in the last year, following "Superintelligence" and "Thunder Force.")
There are hints of darkness and indications that all is not what it seems at Tranquillum House, including particularly menacing shots of the guests' morning smoothie preparation. The opening credits are a psychedelic wash of sunsets, fires, ocean waves and Venus flytraps set to Unloved's cover of Dave Berry's "This Strange Effect" which indicate an atmosphere of moody dread that the series can never really make good on. Each actor inhabits their own world and their own vision of the series they're in; Kidman's is pure camp, if only Kelley and director Jonathan Levine would have allowed her to follow that impulse, something more interesting may have emerged.
"Are we on some kind of reality show?" Tony asks in the third episode, still unsure of exactly what Tranquillum House is meant to be. Same goes for the experience of watching "Nine Perfect Strangers." Hopefully there's an answer tucked into the final episodes, which were not provided for review. Whether or not you care enough to stick around that long, that's another story.
'Nine Perfect Strangers'
Starts Wednesday on Hulu