“Wellness” is one of humanity’s oldest pursuits but the word dates from only 1950, when an American doctor, Halbert Dunn, combined “wellbeing” and “fitness” to create a neologism that now denotes a billion dollar industry.
In the eight-part Hulu series, Nine Perfect Strangers, we follow a disparate group of people who have booked themselves into an expensive ‘wellness’ retreat called Tranquillum House, in a lush bushland setting that looks suspiciously like Byron Bay.
The presiding goddess is Nicole Kidman, playing Masha, a Russian emigrée who was CEO for a big corporation before drastic circumstances compelled her to change her life and open a health spa. We understand from the start that Masha is a mystery woman with a lot of psychological baggage, but as each episode unfolds that baggage increases, until it would require a semi-trailer to move it around.
The nine guests who have chosen to submit themselves to Masha’s ministrations for the next ten days are each damaged in a different way. First there is Frances (Melissa McCarthy), a romance novelist who has been dumped by a faithless lover and by her publisher. There’s Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former football hero whose injuries have made him into a drug fiend and destroyed his family life. Next up is the Marconi family – Heather, Napoleon, (Asher Keddie, Michael Shannon) and their 20-year-old daughter, Zoe (Grace Van Patten), all of them still grieving for Zoe’s twin brother, Zac, who committed suicide three years ago.
To round out the group there’s Carmel (Regina Hill), whose husband left her for a younger woman; Lars (Luke Evans), a journalist, who may be writing an exposé on Masha’s establishment; and Ben and Jessica (Melvyn Gregg and Samantha Weaving), young, rich and shallow, but deeply unhappy in their marriage.
Add Masha’s conspiratorial assistants, Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), and there’s all the makings of a rip-roaring soap opera in a confined space. The series is based on a book by best-selling Australian novelist, Liane Moriarty, whom I confess I’ve never read. From the sidelines Moriarty’s work looks like prime ‘chicklit’, but perhaps a superior variety thereof. She’s also the author behind that compelling, award-winning series, Big Little Lies (2017-19).
The basic plotlines of Nine Perfect Strangers are thoroughly predictable. The characters all have their distinctive flaws. During their time at the spa they will be obliged to confront those personal demons, finding support and solace in the rest of the group. Characters that begin with antagonistic relationships, such as Frances and Tony, will grow closer together. They will suffer at first, but gradually accept that the experience is helping them to heal long-term, invisible wounds.
Or so it seems, at least until the end of the sixth episode. I’ve yet to receive the final two installments so there’s always the possibility the story will plunge off a cliff. But if 75% vaccination is sufficient to end a COVID-19 lockdown it’s a good enough percentage to venture an overview of a TV series.
Were Nine Perfect Strangers no more than a tale of self-actualisation it would have a limited appeal among those who have been on similar journeys – the new, spiritually-charged version of Russell Brand might be the ideal viewer. Instead, there are enough sub-plots to confound Agatha Christie. Masha is receiving death threats on her mobile and suspects the culprit can only be found among the guests or the staff. Each of the possible suspects has his or her own secrets which gradually come to light, but are they murderers-in-waiting? And what’s the big grudge they have against Masha?
There is some controversy about her approach to wellness, which – along with the healthy diet, exercise, meditation, anger management, saunas and spas – entails doping her guests with magic mushrooms. As this particular group is shaping up so well she doubles the dose, with the result that by episodes five and six, everyone is wandering around in a daze, having hallucinations and doing bizarre things. The story never descends into full, Roger Corman-style psychedelia, but the special effects department is not idle.
There’s no doubt that Kidman is the star of the show. The guests hold her in awe, even when she admits to putting drugs into their morning smoothies. As usual she looks amazing, being statuesque enough to tower over most of the cast, but I’m not sure about the Russian accent. Her standard way of appearing “mysterious” consists of a narrowing and widening of the eyes.
Kidman is playing a highly theatrical character but her performance is perilously close to caricature. By contrast, Melissa McCarthy seems to relish the oportunity to get away from the dumb-ass comedy movies, while Michael Shannon and Bobby Cannavale are always worth watching. The overall quality of the cast adds a lot to the series, as does the idyllic setting. Nine Perfect Strangers manages keep us on tenterhooks from one episode to the next but when I sat down to reflect on what I’d seen it felt like a rather empty entertainment.
The guests are cynical about the ‘wellness’ treatments they are receiving, dwelling on the huge fees they’ve forked out. Here, Masha gives as good as she gets, not bothering to deny the lucrative nature of the business. She merely insists that her guests stay the course and feel the benefits.
It leaves one wondering about the real wellness industry, wreathed, as it is, in so much lip-curling mumbo jumbo. Is it preying on people’s weaknesses or helping to cure genuine afflictions? Wellness is the epitome of a First World business because not many people in countries torn by war, poverty or famine have the leisure to worry about the ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ routine.
Don’t expect Nine Perfect Strangers to provide any insights into these questions. The filmmakers are happy to have an each-way bet: a touch of satire, a dash of sincerity, and a good deal of ‘luxury porn’. Murder threats aside, there’ll be many viewers willing to suffer any of the characters’ problems if it allowed them to spend a week at Tranquillum House.
Nine Perfect Strangers
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by David E. Kelley & John-Henry Butterworth, after a novel by Liane Moriarty
Starring Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale, Asher Keddie, Regina Hall, Luke Evans, Grace Van Patten, Tiffany Boone, Manny Jacinto, Samara Weaving, Melvyn Gregg
USA, rated NA, 8 episodes of approx. 55 mins each
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 August, 2021