Plot: Based on The New York Times bestselling book by author Liane Moriarty, “Nine Perfect Strangers” takes place at a boutique health-and-wellness resort that promises healing and transformation as nine stressed city dwellers try to get on a path to a better way of living. Watching over them during this 10-day retreat is the resort’s director, Masha, a woman on a mission to reinvigorate their tired minds and bodies. However, these nine “perfect” strangers have no idea what is about to hit them.
Review: Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley have partnered on Big Little Lies and The Undoing, two adaptations of best-selling novels that were critically successful on HBO. Their third collaboration, based on a novel by the author of Big Little Lies, shakes things up a bit with an all-star cast and a mysterious plot that showcases the acting talents of all involved while also improving upon the source material. Nine Perfect Strangers is an intriguing character drama with a pitch-black sense of humor resonating within a narrative peppered with subplots that keep you unraveling the true motivations of all involved.
When the project was first announced, I read Lianne Moriarty’s novel. With shifting perspectives and quick chapters, I breezed through the book and found it a bit underwhelming. From the initial teasers for the Hulu series, I noticed a lot of scenes that I could not align with events from the novel. Having now seen six of the eight-episode mini-series, I understand that is because this is a fundamentally different story than in the novel. While the main set-up and the background stories for the main cast remain consistent with the book, there is a lot more to this adaptation than meets the eye. Starting with Nicole Kidman’s character, the enigmatic Masha, and the cryptic messages she receives threatening her life, it becomes clear that David E. Kelley and director Jonathan Levine aimed to craft something closer in line to an Agatha Christie story.
Shifting from Australia to California doesn’t alter the plot all that much as we find nine people heading to an exclusive health resort for very different reasons. Frances Welty (Melissa McCarthy) is a romance novelist reeling from a recent encounter with a con artist. The Marconi family, led by Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie) and daughter Zoe (Grave Van Patten) are dealing with the suicide of their son Zach. Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica Chandler (Samara Weaving) are having marriage challenges while Carmel (Regina Hall) aims to lose weight and gain confidence. Lars Lee (Luke Evans) has ulterior motives while Tony (Bobby Cannavale) hides his own personal demons. All of them, hand-selected by Masha, are forced to deal with their issues while undergoing a unique regimen at Tranquilium House.
Each episode includes brief reveals as to what brought each of these nine people to seek a transformation from Masha. Masha herself, with the aid of Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), has a past that comes back to haunt her. While things begin with an aspirational perspective, the elements of civilized society begin to break down. Nine Perfect Strangers presents this story with some of the mysterious twists of series like Lost crossed with Lord of the Flies. There is a commentary here on subjects like opioid addiction, teen suicide, body dysmorphia, and even addiction to social media, but all of that feels superficial. The core story here is really focused on why these people are here and is there a darker connection between them all.
Developed by David E. Kelley and Jez Butterworth (Ford v. Ferrari), Nine Perfect Strangers looks beautiful as it takes advantage of the Australian shooting locations that look far more exotic than California. Aside from the fairly prominent profanity and mild nudity, these series could have aired on network television. The benefit to being on a streaming service like Hulu is the higher budget that allowed such a talented cast to be assembled. Nicole Kidman is better than she has been in either The Undoing or Big Little Lies, and that is saying something. For their third collaboration in recent years, Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale capitalize on their chemistry and both deliver performances that I did not expect. Michael Shannon is far more understated than he usually is while Samara Weaving, Regina Hall, and Luke Evans get to play with their roles and look to be having fun with it.
This series will do very well because Hulu is taking the traditional approach to premiering episodes weekly rather than as a binge-watch. Each episode ends with so many open questions that tuning in for subsequent chapters will have audiences buzzing about just what is going on. I am very pleased that enough has been changed from the novel that even those familiar with the source material will be surprised at how certain plot threads are connected. Nine Perfect Strangers is a rare example of when an adaptation improves upon the source material. It is also, like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, an example of why all-star marquee projects that are assembled properly can showcase star power equal to acting prowess. A fun, mystery thriller with enough laughs and twists to keep you engaged, Nine Perfect Strangers is an enjoyable late summer romp.
Nine Perfect Strangers premieres on August 18th on Hulu.