Nine Perfect Strangers review: Nicole Kidman awakens her inner Osho in Hulu's hollow show
Nine Perfect Strangers review: Nicole Kidman reunites with her Big Little Lies creator David E Kelley for the third time, but the duo isn't able to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of their earlier work.
If the success of Big Little Lies proved one thing, it’s that the success of Big Little Lies cannot be replicated, no matter how hard anyone, including creator David E Kelley himself, tries. His new show, also based on a book by Liane Moriarty, is Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, available in India on Amazon Prime Video.
It is also his third collaboration with Nicole Kidman, after two seasons of Big Little Lies and The Undoing. But while both those shows were designed to grab viewers from the get go, Nine Perfect Strangers, at least in the three episodes that were provided for preview, relies entirely on (ho-hum) human drama to keep you invested. Now, this isn’t to say that a salacious plot twist won’t be introduced in later episodes, but it’s already too late to win over anybody who is uncertain about committing.
Watch the Nine Perfect Strangers trailer here:
For instance, this is exactly the strategy that Mike White cleverly used to lure audiences to his HBO show The White Lotus. After having personally witnessed the heartbreak of dwindling viewership with his earlier show, Enlightened, he ensured that The White Lotus began with an instantly-immersive ‘hook’ — in this case, a flash-forward that teased a murder.
But superficial similarities aside, Nine Perfect Strangers takes far too long to explain what it’s actually about. In fact, it’s still a mystery after three episodes. Those who’ve read Moriarty’s novel would know what’s in store, but I wonder if that’s enough to enhance the experience of watching the show.
We begin with the titular strangers arriving at a luxury retreat run by an enigmatic Russian woman named Masha, played by Kidman in a sort of performance that is both absurdly over-the-top, but also frustratingly opaque. One character describes her as an ‘Eastern-bloc unicorn’, and that isn’t entirely inaccurate. But her motivations are deliberately murky. She’s sort of like a variation of Brit Marling’s character from The OA — someone who experienced a near death experience which awakened her inner Osho — but she’s also a quack who throws out gems like, ‘Pre-industrial man didn’t get depressed because he was too busy working’.
Nearly every one of her ‘guests’ is, in some way, suffering from a mental health issue. The hilariously-named Napoleon Marconi (Michael Shannon, doing a ‘thing’) and his wife Heather are grieving the death of their teenage son to suicide; an abrasive writer is reckoning with a growing feeling of irrelevance; a former star athlete is trying to shake his pill addiction; a millennial couple is grappling with inadequacy; and a meek, middle-aged woman is looking to rebuild her life after being dumped by her husband. If only one of them would have the decency to drop dead, it would make the show infinitely more engaging.
Because as it stands — unevenly written and undone by a tonal imbalance — it isn’t engaging enough. While it definitely improves as it goes along — episode three is the strongest of the preview batch — I’d imagine most people wouldn’t have much interest in watching Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale's verbal duels every few minutes; or have any patience for Regina Hall’s insufferable Carmel at all.
Another critical error that Nine Perfect Strangers makes is that it doesn’t have an audience surrogate character. With no one to emotionally latch onto, it becomes increasingly likely for the viewer to simply switch off. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but in mediocre shows such as this, it becomes almost necessary.
Part of the reason for this mediocrity is that it feels generic, despite the fact that every episode is directed by one person — Jonathan Levine, a fantastic filmmaker, who has stepped so far outside his comfort zone with this one that it begins to feel as if he’s lost. For instance, while the Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe is acknowledged and appreciated — just like it was in M Night Shyamalan's Old — he keeps making strange choices, like cutting to slow motion shots of smoothies being blitzed, which is a very Lars von Trier thing to do. Not smoothies specifically, but just abstract transitions that tangentially tie into the themes of the story. I’m not sure if it works quite as well here as, say, in Melancholia or something.
Nine Perfect Strangers might improve, but normally, networks and streamers always prefer putting their best foot forward with critics. And if they’ve decided to deliberately keep the majority of the show a secret, that doesn’t bode well for what’s to come. It’s almost as if they preempted a lukewarm response; one character says, ‘What do critics even know? Look at poor Stallone, they treat him like garbage and Rocky is the greatest movie ever made.” Well, they gave Oscars to that movie. Nine Perfect Strangers would be lucky to even qualify for Emmy consideration.
Nine Perfect Strangers
Creators - David E Kelley, John-Henry Butterworth
Cast - Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, Bobby Cannavale, Samara Weaving, Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie, Regina Hall, Manny Jacinto, Grace Van Patten, Tiffany Boone
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar