Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers” is a true actor’s showcase, in that it shows off an incredible amount of actors, and their skills, but doesn’t leave much room for story. It’s not a great binge idea if one is looking for a juicy narrative, given the murder mystery-ready title, or for a plot that boasts an unpredictable, juicy course of events. Instead it reduces its power to simply appreciating the spectacle of simulated emotion, that of watching many talented and recognizable faces conjure sadness and catharsis and pain in awards reel-ready monologues that zip up and down the scales. Great monologues can exist in counterproductive prestige TV, and for all of the power that the A-list ensemble brought to this wellness retreat in a particularly picturesque part of California, the pacing itself from director Jonathan Levine has far too little emotional momentum. Nicole Kidman gives one of her kookiest performances in years, as the gaslighting Russian wellness guru behind it all, and even that gets lost in the crowd.
The show does inspire uniformly strong performances from people that you haven't exactly seen in this light, a type of pull that does helps this David E. Kelley and John-Henry Butterworth adaptation of the Liane Moriarty book get through its more redundant or drier passages. Melissa McCarthy is prickly and vulnerable as Francis, a writer who comes to the program right after hearing horrible news about her new book that will shape the next direction of her career. She shares numerous touching scenes with Bobby Cannavale as Tony, a hot-headed, burned-out guy with a pill addiction and a great amount of self-loathing on his shoulders. With the surprising chemistry that comes from spending so much time with them, Cannavale and McCarthy share numerous scenes that show an escalating friendship, especially when they recognize each other’s inner angst.
Michael Shannon remains a top-notch scene-stealer across any medium here, playing a dad and high school teacher named Napoleon who has come to the retreat with his wife Heather (Asher Keddie) and daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten). The family shares a traumatic loss that they struggle to talk about, but that Shannon’s peppy, adventurous Napoleon tries to overcome with desperate optimism, a stark contrast to the hollowed out presence of Heather and Zoe. I call Shannon a scene-stealer here because of how he commands various scenes with his singing voice, including a pants-less number that shows just how much stronger “Nine Perfect Strangers” would be from continuing to embrace its strange side. Another scene in which everyone participates in a potato sack race also proves to be an island.
Perhaps the most excited of client of them all, but also the most conflicted, is Regina Hall’s Carmel. She has an aggressively bubbly nature to getting into the program, wanting to believe and be swept away by whatever Masha and her program, Tranquillum, has to offer. But we learn this is a mask for an explosive anger within. Hall plays this part incredibly broad and yet keeps these extremes grounded, making it believable that she would be so intense to want to experience Masha’s salvation, and later have a rage that comes out in small bursts.
There’s less optimism from Lars, played with a tough exterior and snide grin by Luke Evans. Among the many tenuous people in the group, he is often lambasted as its biggest asshole, the most outwardly antagonistic for reasons that become more and more apparent. And while the retreat focuses on individual problems, it does offer help for couples too, like high school sweethearts Jessica (Samara Weaving) and Ben (Melvin Gregg), who have lost their romantic spark despite their considerable youth to the other attendees.
Nicole Kidman’s performance as Masha, the wellness leader said to have curated this week's guests like a cocktail, is the eight-episode miniseries' hollow centerpiece. She hams up various scenes with her Russian accent and extra icy gaze, giving bizarre directions to her clients and testing their comfort levels. Her character suffers too from the tedious game this show plays with backstory, of flashing back in time when the present plot needs to push forward, and even though she has a lot going on in the character, there’s still something bland to her and the overall plot. Masha too seems like her soul has been caught up by the iffy enterprise of modern wellness, and we only get glimpses of an interesting character from scenes in which she establishes an otherworldly skill for people. But “Nine Perfect Strangers” eventually makes clear that she’s money-minded most of all, and that the miniseries can’t decide on whether to present her as an eccentric joke or a competent master, causing the impact of Kidman’s performance to overall weaken. Yves Belanger’s cinematography, which gets looser and tipsier as the series goes along, always seems to makes sure to find a bright golden light to shine off the back of her head, but Kidman’s performance loses that power over time.
There’s more, involving Masha’s assistants Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone). The two have their own tense relationship that unfolds in between working hours, and various flashbacks show the type of hold that Masha has had in their lives, and now in their connection. It offers a bit more transparency to the process, but at the same time it doesn’t fulfill the show's sense of mystery. It’s more like, if nine strangers wasn’t enough, here’s a few more lives to juggle, damning the story's growth.
In the first six episodes provided to press, “Nine Perfect Strangers” gets an initially curious air about its character dynamics, of seeing who opens up with who when the group is originally deemed “a powder keg.” But the series has a dangerously low amount of stakes, as it slogs between so many different storylines that just hold the series’ curious evolution back. Sometimes it will jump to the perspective of Masha and her assistants, to show how things work behind the scenes with careful dosages, or security camera footage. But no greater intrigue or mystery arises; nothing in the narrative matches the ominous intoxication of recurring shots of smoothies being curated and mixed in extra slow motion.
The story is tediously more driven by star power than it is narrative, and while that set-up has some hold, it doesn’t make large chunks particularly memorable, or tense. Especially in the first three episodes, you’re always waiting for the shoe to drop, for the wellness company to, of course, reveal its con, or for someone to get murdered. None of that happens exactly, because “Nine Perfect Strangers” is often as straightforward as hopping between nine-plus therapy-like experiences, whether sessions are successful or not. Themes about loss, suicide, and trauma are handled broadly, but the emotional impact is not there however impressive the tearful monologues are, or extended some conversations may be. Even when some more scandalous elements are brought into the fold and normalized, it’s not as compelling or rich as a production with this cast could be.
Their characters are of course flawed but don’t seem all that nuanced beyond a secret that eventually comes out—one guy is revealed to have been a lottery winner, who was then burdened with a mentality of nothingness after achieving such financial security. But the story leaves him behind to focus on a million other problems, because that’s what "Nine Perfect Strangers" can only really do—juggle these plot lines that don’t challenge the viewer so much as very, very slowly reveal themselves in a gorgeous, sunny setting. You don’t necessarily grow attached to these characters, or deeply care about their wellbeing, so much as you simply get used to them.
Six episodes screened for review. The first three episodes of "Nine Perfect Strangers" premieres today on Hulu, with a new episode every week.