The first three episodes effectively set up the mystery at the heart of 'Nine Perfect Strangers' and deliver some strong performances in the impressive ensemble.
- 🌼 Melissa McCarthy getting to flex her dramatic and comedy prowess.
- 🌼 The chemistry between McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale.
- 🌼 The stunning location.
- 🌼 An overall sense of doom and sinister vibe.
- 🌼 How the various secrets spill out.
- 🌼 Nicole Kidman's accent and wig take a little getting used to.
- 🌼 Some characters like Yao (Manny Jacinto) haven't had much to do so far.
This post contains spoilers for Nine Perfect Strangers' "Random Acts of Mayhem," "The Critical Path," and "Earth Day."
Resort season is in full swing on television with HBO’s The White Lotus concluding its run this week, and Nine Perfect Strangers on Hulu taking up the reins with three episodes plunging viewers into the mystery at the Tranquillum House boutique health-and-wellness resort. Based on the 2018 New York Times best-seller novel of the same name by Lianne Moriarty, an all-star cast plays the nine “perfect” strangers and the exclusive wellness center employees ready to shed personal baggage. Australian author Moriarty also wrote Big Little Lies, and as with that hit adaptation the setting has been switched from Down Under to the California coast — although because of COVID production moved from the US to Australia. The opening trio of episodes has to introduce a big ensemble but also dish out enough answers while maintaining the mystery.
Showrunner David E. Kelley and director Jonathan Levine (Long Shot, Warm Bodies) successfully juggle both of these aspects, and the story is bolstered by the impressive cast. It is Nicole Kidman’s second time taking on a character from a Moriarty novel and her third recent series (fourth if you include her 2017 role in Top of the Lake). Kidman is one of many film stars turning to television, and Masha is unlike her work on BLL and The Undoing. Playing the enigmatic Russian entrepreneur at the heart of Nine Perfect Strangers means Kidman is in command, though you might be distracted by the wig and the accent for the first few scenes she appears in. Masha is part observer, part string-puller who claims that she wants to transform the nine guests over the next 10 days. “This is Tranquillum. I mean to fuck with you all,” she ominously announces at the end of the first episode and if that is not enough to pull the viewer in, I don’t know what is. Full disclosure, I have recently read Moriarty’s book, but this will not be a series of reviews comparing the two different formats — although I might mention the source material here and there.
Kidman is the headliner, but it is another Oscar nominee that steals every scene, and it is good to have Melissa McCarthy back on TV again. Perfectly applied lipstick and oversized sunglasses can’t hide that romance novelist Frances Welty is in crisis. She used to be at the top of her game (and best-seller to boot), but on the way to the isolated retreat, she is told that her long-time publisher has passed on her latest book. She also finds out in the second episode that a negative review of her unpublished manuscript is online and this is after her work has been described as unfeminist. On top of her professional life hitting the skids, Frances is heartbroken after a scammer (played by real-life husband Ben Falcone in flashbacks) convinced her to wire a lot of cash to pay for his fake son’s hospital treatment. When she reports it to the police, they note that her demo (middle-age and divorced) are prime for this kind of con, but part of her thinks the money was worth it as she got six months of love — even if it wasn’t real. Frances doesn’t spill her guts to Masha, rather she tells Tony (Bobby Cannavale) about the grifter whose name she mumbles in her sleep, and her relationship with Tony is one of the standouts in the series so far.
This isn’t the first time Cannavale and McCarthy have appeared together (this review also doubles as my plea to get a sequel to the comedy movie Spy) and their chemistry crackles whether arguing or revealing their darkest secrets. They meet before they get to the retreat when Frances has stopped her car to scream into the beautiful countryside and Tony stops to ask if she is okay. His brusque demeanor rubs her up the wrong way and these snap judgments continue into the second episode when they find themselves in the pool at the same time. A truce is called after Tony saves her life, even if he is the reason she almost choked to death on a grape — he threw it in her mouth while she was sleeping. He is a former NFL player who is dealing with a pain medication addiction and his belligerent mood increases when his pill dosage is messed with. It isn’t until the third episode “Earth Day” that his identity is unveiled as a celebration he did after winning the sack race is the same as his touchdown dance. His anger and resentment are tied to his post-career depression but his struggles are connected to the daughter he barely sees.
One common thread between the nine guests is fractured families; from the ones who have left to the people fighting to get their relationships back on course. The opulent wellness retreat isn’t on social media and costs a fortune to attend, and Masha only selects specific candidates. Each of these people is here because Masha handpicked them and this includes the Marconi family who was given this vacation at a discount. Patriarch Napoleon (Michael Shannon) is a high school teacher and he is the chatty member of the trio, whereas wife Heather (Asher Keddie) is standoffish to both strangers and her husband. Daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) is about to turn 21 and is treated like a delicate flower that will wilt if left alone for too long. It isn’t until “Earth Day” that the specifics of their grief are revealed when a eulogy for a goat that Napoleon killed turns into him spilling his guts about his guilt. During Napoleon’s one-on-one with Masha, his son Zach’s suicide is broached for the first time. Zoe has previously mentioned her twin brother’s death after she fled Masha’s first session and a lot of the activities — such as digging your own grave and lying in it (!) — are incredibly triggering for the Marconi clan. Heather starts to loosen up in the third episode, which could be the result of the smoothies they are consuming. Fruit hasn’t seemed this menacing since the Parasite peaches.
Masha’s preoccupation with death and rebirth is a direct result of her own near-death experience when now-personal wellness consultant Yao (Manny Jacinto) saved her life after she was shot in a parking garage. Yao was working as a paramedic at a time, but when Masha recovered and ventured down this path, he joined her small dedicated team. Masha is still being hunted and she has been getting troubling threats by someone close by — this storyline is not in the book so I am as in the dark as viewers who have not read the novel. The wellness maven also has a surveillance room bathed in a green light, which gives her the air of a Bond villain. While her paranoia is warranted, some of the flashback elements and the repeated imagery of a young girl border on the repetitive instead of adding to the mystery. Her dynamic with Yao is all about power and threatens his romantic relationship with fellow consultant Delilah (Tiffany Boone), and one area that needs more time dedicated to it is both of Masha’s employees. They have shown concern about their boss's plans in relation to the powder keg that is the group, which suggests they won't blindly follow her.
Darkness seeps into every corner and while the location is beautiful it doesn’t mean their baggage has been left at the door. Married couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving) have it all, but winning millions on the lottery has left their union hanging by a thread. Ben seems to care more for his fancy sports car and Jess is fixated on her social media profile, and getting validation this way. Thankfully, the first few episodes don’t paint her as a vacuous villain and she is just as lost as the rest of those attending this retreat. She is a fan of the romance novels Frances has written (particularly “Nathanial’s Kiss”) and dreams of being seen to this degree by Ben (or anyone). She is striving to be taken seriously and matters come to a head with Carmel (Regina Hall) after another quip about her appearance — the contouring is influencer-ready.
While Jess has a body that is considered to be the current beauty standard, Carmel is trapped in a confidence (or lack of) spiral. She is ready to embrace whatever challenges Marsha has to make her a better person (and lose weight) and her unhappiness resides in feelings tied to her husband leaving her for a younger woman. She picks at Jess because she is another version of this woman, and she has trouble moderating her anger. Carmel is underestimated but she is also incredibly observant and clocked the texts Lars (Luke Evans) received from his unhappy ex before they got to Tranquillum House.
In fact, Lars is maybe the biggest mystery of all the guests and also the most sneaky when it comes to smuggling in contraband. His food and drink items were discovered but the Apple Watch and AirPods combo mean he has been communicating with the outside world. Not only that but he has also been asking a lot of questions about the wellness treatments (and why they need blood samples, which is a fair inquiry), and it is unclear what his motives are. He has developed a friendship with Zoe after she caught him on the phone and there are definitely alliances being formed in this sinister landscape.
Along with the carefully calibrated smoothies, the first few days at this wellness center feature a lot of what you might expect like meditation and hikes coupled with the more unusual activities like grave digging. Earth Day is set up to give the group a chance to live off the fruits of nature, which is how a goat ends up as the main course. The trippy element is dialed up toward the end of the third episode as it all starts to go a little Midsommar, and it ends with Heather asking another question to the Russian host: “Have you been medicating us?” Masha’s smile says it all and her unorthodox methods are sure to continue. In the build-up to this final shot, Napoleon has bared his soul about his guilt regarding his son (Shannon’s performance is heartbreaking) and this is only the beginning for the nine guests who are no longer strangers.
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