Sparingly appealing as a series, “Hello Ladies” fares somewhat better as an 80-minute movie, designed (much like finales to “The Office” and “Extras”) to wrap up the show. Those aforementioned comedies were the creations of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the gangly, less-well-known sidekick who has gone solo here. And if nothing else, Merchant has established himself as the kinder, gentler half of that tandem, with this sendoff feeling like an old-fashioned romantic comedy. Granted, “Ladies” was hardly a smash in the U.S., but those who said “Hello” initially will likely welcome the closure the finale offers.
More than anything, this concluding chapter feels like a departure from the edgy, uncomfortable material for which the duo was partly known. The story (directed by Merchant, who again shares writing credit with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) essentially zeroes in on the inherent neediness of Merchant’s character, Stuart — his desire to create the impression, or really, illusion, that “I won at life.”
A Web designer, Stuart has spent most of the show fruitlessly chasing after women, while lamenting his haplessness with his sort-of roommate Jessica (Christine Wood), a struggling actress. Yet what moves the plot is a visit from an old girlfriend, who brings along her husband, leaving Stuart desperate to put on a show about his fabulous life as a British ex-pat living it up in L.A.
Inevitably, the charade calls for Jessica to pretend being his girlfriend, the conceit being that only by play-acting at liking each other do the two actually realize that something might actually be there. Like any good (or at least, structurally familiar) romantic comedy, though, the path to true love can’t run smoothly, yielding various impediments, and a serious violation of “Seinfeld’s” famous “No learning” rule.
Merchant and Woods manage to make it work, to a degree, through a combination of likability and vulnerability. There’s also a high-profile cameo by Nicole Kidman as herself, put through a predictable if amusing wringer when Stuart wants to act as if he knows her in order to impress his friends; and a small but key part for the always welcome Stephen Tobolowsky as a boorish yacht-owning mogul (as if there’s any other kind).
Given the show’s modest profile, it’s perhaps no surprise HBO appears to be kissing off the finale in a lower-profile window (10 p.m. on a Saturday?), but closing the books on the story is one of those compacts with viewers that pay-networks are duty-bound to honor.
There is something enlightening in watching this show and Gervais’ Netflix series “Derek,” seeking clues about the way the writers complemented each other.
Beyond that, “Hello Ladies: The Movie” is pleasant enough, even if it took saying goodbye, ultimately, to bring out its best side.