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25 August 2021updated 26 Aug 2021 2:59pm

Nine Perfect Strangers is too over the top to make great satire

This ironic take on a “wellness” retreat, starring Nicole Kidman, is so improbable it doesn’t work.      

By Rachel Cooke

In Nine Perfect Strangers, Nicole Kidman plays Masha, a Russian “wellness” guru who looks like she has been carved from Imperial Leather soap. “People come for the suffering,” she tells the latest arrivals to her spa-cum-bootcamp, Tranquillium, and though it’s hard not to giggle at her mermaid wig – Kidman performs her role with such solemnity, it’s as if she’s playing not some underwritten nutter who places her faith entirely in the power of antioxidants, but Gertrude or maybe even Lady Macbeth – this is no understatement. As I write, it’s Day Three in the Big Brother house, and our happy campers are on a fast that will only be broken if their foraging trip is successful. So far, they’ve found two walnuts, one avocado and a goat. Not exactly the perfect ingredients for a sandwich, I
would say.

Is this the same goat with whom the mysterious Masha appears to have somewhat of an intense relationship? One goat looks much like another to me, irrespective of whether or not they’re able to communicate their sadness with their eyes. But either way, she’s unlikely to be thrilled if the men kill it. Barbecues, even those involving ethical meat, are not generally part of the scene at Tranquillium, where leafy greens reign. Then again, some carefully marinated, slow-roasted billy might help to soothe the group, which is growing increasingly tetchy. They miss their phones, especially Jessica (Samara Weaving), who’d love to Insta the pool, and at least one of them – Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former American football star with a gammy knee – misses his prescription drugs. At breakfast, Lars (Luke Evans), whose ex-boyfriend believes him to be a narcissist, tells Carmel (Regina Hall), who’s struggling to come to terms with her divorce, that she should buy herself a vibrator, at which point she tries to strangle him.

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Carmel’s rage seems a little improbable to me, even if we assume that, like Sauvignon and Apple Watches, sex aids are banned at Tranquillium. Improbability, though, is the watchword here. Like Big Little Lies, in which Kidman also starred, Nine Perfect Strangers has been adapted from a Liane Moriarty novel by David E Kelley. This time around, however, the glossy algorithm has failed to work. It’s not only that Kelley has gussied up the average Californian spa menu in such a way that everything seems silly rather than satirical (on offer: meditational grave digging and adult sack races). The more he lays on the mysteries and the secrets, the unwarranted confessions and the sudden battering open of previously portcullised hearts, the less compelling it all feels. Michael Shannon throws everything at his role as a high school teacher called Napoleon whose son took his own life – Masha has given his family a special rate for their stay in her gilded cage, otherwise affordable only for millionaires – but not even he can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear (or, if you prefer, a detoxifying smoothie from an overripe banana and a bag of Haribo).

The only relief from this relentless too-muchness comes in the form of Melissa McCarthy as Frances Welty, a bestselling romantic novelist whose new book has been rejected by her publisher. McCarthy is bliss; every time she’s not on screen I drift off, my mind turning to wondering how she responded on set to Kidman, who stayed (or so I read) in character between takes. (Is there a scented candle for such a situation?)

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I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler, but I’m warning you now: I just watched some more, and the goat does get it, murdered by Napoleon following some kind of hunger-induced, Leviticus-inspired hallucination out in the wrap-around woods. As the meat arrives at the table, McCarthy looks briefly guilty. “I own quite a few exceptional leather pieces,” she says, acknowledging her hypocrisy in this matter, after which she tucks in, like the good little metaphor that she is. Frances is the only character who understands that so-called wellness is in fact a disease, born of extreme privilege and solipsism. But she’s also an omnivorous consumer. Why shouldn’t a girl be able to buy happiness? Is there mustard or ketchup to go with these contraband kebabs?

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Nine Perfect Strangers 
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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat