The only thing that softened the news of Stephen Merchant’s HBO series Hello Ladies getting cancelled was that HBO had commission a feature length film as the finale. We probably should have seen that one coming. After all, wrapping up a series with a self-contained special has been a staple of Merchant’s work with Ricky Gervais going back to The Offic,e and Hello Ladies: The Movie very much feels like what he’s done with these finales before in the best possible sense. It’s not like they’re ridiculous spin off movies that send the characters to space for a few expensively cheap laughs. These extended wrap-ups use the inherently satisfying feature length narrative structure to provide closure for the series and even offer a little hope for characters caught on treadmills of failure. Granted, the movie also features a hell of a lot of humiliation, pain, and struggle along the way. But with Stephen Merchant, you’d feel disappointed by anything else. The comedy of social humiliation and emotional anguish is very much his M.O. and he’s pretty damn great at it.
Hello Ladies: The Movie kicks off with a long steady-cam single take scene in a nightclub that sets things up by showing that everything is exactly the same. Merchant’s Stuart is once again aggressively flirting with anything that has long legs and stays still long enough to be in his sights. His roommate Jessica (Christine Woods) is celebrating her 30th birthday with a party and an emotional breakdown. Wade (Nate Torrence) continues to be the most pathetic character in a world of pathetic characters. Kives (Kevin Weisman)remains an inexplicable sex machine. From there, Jessica finally dumps her cruel boyfriend/manager (Sean Wing) and decides to give up acting to pursue something resembling a real career. Meanwhile, Stuart learns that his ex-girlfriend (Henrietta Meire) is coming to visit from England, and we learn that the heartbreak he received at the end of their relationship lead to his current, pathetic model-chasing existence. So, Merchant embarks on an insane dating spree in the hopes of finally landing a model to impress his ex-girlfriend while Jessica struggles to fix her life. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Hello Ladie,s and the movie bobs and weaves its way towards a surprisingly happy ending that only the least attentive viewer wouldn’t be able to predict. Thankfully, with Merchant in charge that conclusion comes after an avalanche of pain.
As usual, there are plenty of insights between the laughs. Merchant and his co-writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky use Jessica as means to explore the early midlife crisis many folks face at 30, while Stuart’s new backstory lends depth and nuance to his fevered lady chasing. Without ever hitting its points too hard on the nose, the film is a surprisingly sensitive exploration of the struggles of accepting adulthood emotionally and professionally. The writers even throw in a ghost of Christmas future for Stuart in Steven “Ned Ryerson” Tobolowsky’s pathetic middle aged man hosting boat sex parties as a way to make up for a lonely adolescence.
That’s what made Hello Ladies such an impressive series. On the surface, it’s another comedy about the humiliation of dating (albeit a hilarious one), but underneath it’s always been a sensitive exploration of why that simple and universal human interaction has to be so endlessly embarrassing. Especially now that the series is complete, it’s clear that this has always been one big long romantic comedy and the best possible example of the genre; one that doesn’t merely peddle romance and comedy for profit, but digs deep for the truth behind the clichés. The movie essentially encapsulates the series and does so well enough that it could likely be watched stand alone, even if you’d miss out on plenty of comedy gold by cutting straight to this 80 minute long climax.
Merchant proves once again to be a strong director and knows how to frame a shot or stage a physical gag expertly (seriously, just wait until you see the keg-stand-gone-wrong), yet he’s also smart enough about his brand of comedy to know that it’s entirely performance driven and he focuses his attentions almost purely on that. Everyone in Hello Ladies: The Movie is strong and funny, but with only 80 minutes to wrap up the story he quickly focuses his attentions almost entirely on Stuart and Jessica. The show has always been their story and its conclusion is pretty much inevitable. After all of Merchant’s intense refusals to accept romanticism and tidy wrap-ups over the last season, the way he ends the series could so easily have felt cheap and easy. Thankfully, nothing ever comes easy in a Stephen Merchant joint, so how they come together is surprisingly, difficult, painful, and filled with delayed satisfaction. Hello Ladies: The Movie might have been about giving viewers what they want in an immensely satisfying way, but at least work is required to get there. Weirdly, the best movie released this week is airing on HBO. Especially when coupled with the series, it might also be the best and most complex romantic comedy to emerge from America in years.