Never having been on an expensive "wellness" retreat, one suspects the experience is a lot like watching Nine Perfect Strangers. The retreats that keep the punters coming back obviously have to be pleasant and stimulating, but is there any real insight to be found in such places? The very fact that the punters keep coming back suggests they do not change lives. Enlightenment is not to be purchased by the dollar.
In much the same way, while there is no denying that Nine Perfect Strangers is indeed a five-star experience while it lasts, one is left with the feeling that nothing substantial has happened when it ends.
It is obviously a prestige project. Based on a novel by a fashionable writer, and developed for television by David E Kelley, the most powerful "showrunner" in the business around the turn of the Millennium, the "miniseries" boasts a positively cinematic cast, headed by Nicole Kidman, no less. Several other actors who could headline a major series in their own right, including Melissa McCarthy, Regina Hall, Luke Evans, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Shannon, turn up in supporting roles. They all took the project sufficiently seriously to isolate for filming in New South Wales during a coronavirus quarantine.
As a result, one is always conscious that one is watching a quality product. Yet it never quite decides what it is meant to be. It starts as a family or "relationship" drama as "issues" are worked through at a luxurious retreat in a beautiful setting, but the viewer assumes there must be more to it than that. There are times when it seems to be almost an advertisement for the whole concept of "wellness" retreats, but, again, this leads the viewer to suspect that we are being set up for something. Indeed, the advertisement begins to change into a clear warning against amateurish "wellness" being used as a substitute for proper medical treatment where people have real problems, but it rather pulls its punches and never really turns into a full condemnation, or even a satire, of a very lucrative industry.
There are hints that it might develop into a mystery or a suspense thriller. After all, Nine Perfect Strangers sounds like the title of an Agatha Christie story and the retreat is a perfect setting, conveniently cut off from the rest of the world. Are the Nine going to be knocked off one by one? Is there a Serpent in this man-made Paradise?
There is indeed a sub-plot about the director of the retreat receiving death threats. Could they be coming from one of the Nine? The answer to this is pretty obvious and the whole topic is actually brushed off very casually later on. It is, if anything, an irritating distraction from the human drama, which is where the real story is.
It is in itself a well constructed story. The Nine are simply the nine guests at the retreat, and they are not all strangers to each other. Three of them come as family: the wonderfully named Napoleon Marconi (Shannon), his wife Heather (Asher Keddie), and their daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten), who are trying to come to terms with a horrific loss.
Married couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica Chandler (Samara Weaving) are also trying to come to terms with a major event but at the other end of the spectrum, a big lottery win. There is also another underdeveloped sub-plot about Jessica being obsessed with "social media" and how she looks. Talk about "First World problems."
The four singletons are the only ones who really are strangers to everyone. Frances Welty (McCarthy) has enjoyed great commercial success writing romantic novels that pander to fashionable issues. She takes little pride in her work and is depressed by the fact that superficial people like Jessica are her target market. One cannot help wondering if this is the original novelist Liane Moriarty's caricature of herself. If so, it is not meant to be accurate because, unlike Moriarty, Frances is unmarried and even her commercial success is beginning to desert her. To add insult to injury, she was recently the victim of an internet scam by a man who pretended to love her, played by Ben Falcone.
Tony Hogburn (Cannavale) is her polar opposite, an apparently insensitive retired American football player addicted to prescription drugs. We see where this is going. Still, it is a pleasant journey. McCarthy and Cannavale have an easy chemistry - they are old friends in real life - and McCarthy must have felt very comfortable on set, especially since her husband plays the man who conned her, and her daughter plays her character's younger self in a flashback.
Regina Hall, almost unrecognisable from her Scary Movie days and all the better for it, is Carmel Schneider, a meek divorced mother who was used as a doormat for years by her husband before being abandoned by him for a younger woman. One might imagine she could be suppressing quite a bit of anger about this. One might indeed.
Lars Lee (Evans) is a more overtly angry troublemaker who seems determined to disrupt the harmony of the retreat. So why is he there in the first place? He must have a hidden agenda. To be honest it is not that well hidden and the intelligent viewer will probably be able to make an educated guess within about thirty seconds.
Given the strength of the cast, it is no surprise that the high standard of the performances is one of the joys of the production. The supporting players work well as an ensemble, resisting the temptation to upstage each other. McCarthy does well in a more realistic role, outside her usual comedy comfort zone: it helps that her character is written as having a strong sense of humour, but there is also a vulnerability about her that comes across well. The versatile Shannon, a talented actor who deserves to be better known, shows he can play a wounded family man as easily as he can a psychopath or any of the other roles in his diverse portfolio. Hall has matured magnificently as an actress and it is a pity that her character arc is so poorly written. Van Patten makes a good impression in distinguished company, even if the cliché of the child who is wiser than her parents is getting a little tiresome at the moment.
The supporting cast might have been enough on its own to deliver a compelling drama, but the project was always destined to be dominated by its undoubted star. On paper, the notion of a ruthless, selfish CEO who becomes a sort of "guru" after a near death experience might appear too contrived. Only a player with the authority of Nicole Kidman could make her seem remotely credible. Arguably the best technical actress among today's top film stars, she has a particular gift for ambiguity which is especially useful here. She plays Marsha Dimitrichenko, the director of the retreat, as Galadriel but if she had a heavy Russian accent. If this comes across as melodramatic, that is the point. We are never entirely sure how much Marsha herself is putting on an act.
From the moment we meet her she exudes power, compassion, and wisdom. She is totally in control and seems almost omniscient. Only gradually does it become apparent that she is making it up as she goes along. We are kept guessing almost to the end whether she is a total charlatan or simply someone who takes risks to cover for not really knowing what she is doing.
Initially, her magnetic personality and what always appears to be a genuine desire to help everyone are enough to convince most of her guests to trust her with their healing. Indeed, even the most jaded of viewers might think how pleasant it would be to have such an apparently wise and caring counsellor. This is the great strength of the early episodes. As the characters begin to go through various simple exercises under her direction and work through their individual problems, the whole concept of "wellness" begins to look quite attractive.
Everything changes with an abrupt revelation, or rather realisation, that Marsha has been taking short cuts. That the guests all accept, some reluctantly, others eagerly, that mind altering substances are an acceptable and useful way to come to terms with real life troubles may be dramatically necessary, but it stretches the credibility of the drama beyond breaking point. It also raises ethical questions: is this really the message the writers are trying to convey?
The writers eventually see the danger in this and show some of the potentially horrific negative effects of drug abuse. Nevertheless, an annoyingly artificial and unrealistic resolution leaves the question open very irresponsibly. Modern life is confusing. Spirituality, and good mental and physical health, are important and effective tools in coping with its pressures, but, far from offering quick fixes, they demand discipline over time. Opting out to an alternative reality is a way of avoiding real world problems rather than confronting them and working through them. Yet what Nine Perfect Strangers seems to be saying is that, if are rich enough, you can skip the hard work and continuing effort - and it is not being satirical when it says that.
A more satirical approach would certainly have been far more satisfying. So, on the other hand, would a more serious approach, seeing people deal with their problems realistically. The basic concept of "wellness," the synthesis of Spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing, is not necessarily a bad one, even if it has proved fertile ground for charlatans and chancers. A drama that addressed it either from a positive or a negative point of view - but better still one that explored both thoroughly - might have been a very useful exercise. Nine Perfect Strangers takes none of the opportunities offered by the concept and so that, compelling as it is when one is actually watching, ultimately it rather wastes the efforts of its impressive cast.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on December 16th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.