‘Nine Perfect Strangers’: Likable stars bicker in a sort of New Age ‘Fantasy Island’
Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon are among the talented cast of Hulu’s occasionally entertaining but mostly ridiculous melodrama.
Everyone is on a journey in the Hulu limited dramatic series “Nine Perfect Strangers” — healing journeys, journeys of self-discovery, actual journeys into the woods — but the most amazing journey of all is the trip taken by Nicole Kidman’s accent in nearly every line reading. Oh, the places she goes!
An eight-episode Hulu series premiering with three episodes Wednesday, and continuing with an episode each subsequent Wednesday.
Kidman is playing an ethereal, goddess-like, New Age wellness guru named Masha who is originally from Russia but has lived in America for many years. Nearly every time Masha delivers a proclamation along the lines of, “Sunlight rains down upon you … swaths of gold, filling you up from your head to your toes, with gratitude and joy for another day, another chance,” Kidman’s accent veers from Russian to American and then a little bit of her native Australian creeps in — and it doesn’t help that she’s uttering nonsense such as “Sunlight rains down upon you,” etc., etc.
It’s a surprisingly wobbly, not-good performance from a great actress in a beautifully photographed and occasionally entertaining but mostly ridiculous and off-putting melodrama from some of the same folks (series co-developer David E. Kelley and author Liane Moriarty) who gave us “Big Little Lies,” the far juicier and addictively soapy HBO series that also stars Kidman. (Kelley and Kidman paired up for “The Undoing” on HBO as well.) “Nine Perfect Strangers” reminded me a lot of last month’s HBO limited series “The White Lotus,” in that we once again have a group of mostly wealthy, attractive, thinly drawn and irritatingly self-centered narcissists who spend a brief period of time at a seemingly idyllic, remote getaway, where they devote endless hours to bickering with one another and getting into dark hijinks involving drugs and deception and possibly even … MURDER.
It’s like Agatha Christie, only with Botox and far less suspense.
Whereas “The White Lotus” was stationed in an upscale vacation resort in Hawaii, “Nine Perfect Strangers” is set in the woods of Northern California (it was actually filmed under quarantine protocols in the northern Australia coastal town of Byron Bay), at an exclusive and somewhat controversial health and wellness retreat known as Tranquillum House, which accepts only nine guests at a time for 10-day stays in which they will confront their inner demons, unlock their deepest secrets and reach new levels of consciousness. It’s all under the tutelage of Kidman’s Masha, who has long flowing locks of blond hair, dresses in all-white ensembles and always seems to be backlit by the sun, even indoors or at night. It’s as if she’s some sort of otherworldly being, or a white witch — or maybe she’s just another crystal-twirling self-help huckster with a compelling back story and a cult leader’s slick charisma. We shall see.
There’s no denying the star power and likability of this week’s guest stars on Fantasy Island, I mean, Tranquillum House. The group includes Frances (Melissa McCarthy), a popular novelist whose career has hit the skids and novelist who recently was the victim of a catfishing louse; Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a loud-mouthed jerk who rubs everyone the wrong way; Carmel (Regina Hall), a bundle of nervous energy trying to get over a divorce; Jessica (Samara Weaving), an Instagram-obsessed beauty and her husband Ben (Melvin Gregg), who seems to care more about his Lamborghini than Jessica; Lars (Luke Evans), who’s on an undercover mission at the retreat, and the Marconi family: Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie) and their soon to be 21-year-old daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten), whose twin brother Zach committed suicide three years earlier.
With the exception of the annoyingly upbeat Napoleon and the even more annoyingly nervous Carmel, it seems like nobody even wants to be here — but with the help of her loyal associates Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), Masha begins to work her magic on the group, getting them to try her custom-made smoothies, to participate in therapy sessions and even to indulge in seemingly silly exercises such as a potato race. (It’s almost as if you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.)
“Nine Perfect Strangers” has its moments of humanity, as when the abrasive Tony lets down his guard and stops insulting Frances, and a possible romance develops. More often, however, the storylines veer all over the place, especially after Masha increases the dosages of the experimental psychotropic drugs each guest is given. Scenes in which each member of the Marconi family sees and interacts with Zach are tone-deaf and creepy when they’re intended to be emotional punches to the gut.
Meanwhile, someone is sending death threats to Masha, who just might be … wait for it … the most damaged soul in the entire group. Shocking, but not shocking. I’ve seen the first six episodes of “Nine Perfect Strangers” and who knows, maybe it’ll tie together in the final two episodes and reach a dramatically satisfying conclusion with a few nifty turns and twists down the stretch. So far, though, this is a perfectly mediocre affair.