‘Loot’ Fails to Cash in on Maya Rudolph’s Many Talents

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Loot_Photo_010401c - Credit: Colleen Hayes
Loot_Photo_010401c - Credit: Colleen Hayes

Maya Rudolph is a huge, versatile talent. That has been apparent from her Saturday Night Live days through most of her film and TV appearances in the 15 years since she left Studio 8H. She’s a fabulous singer. She can play larger-than-larger-than-life caricatures and understated human beings with equal verve. She seems game to do almost anything, and capable of pulling it off.

So why has it been so hard to make a great spotlight vehicle for her?

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The latest attempt, Loot, premieres Friday on Apple TV+, and stars Rudolph as Molly Wells, newly divorced from tech mogul John (Adam Scott). Because they married without a prenup back when John was just trying to get his first business of the ground, she comes out of the marriage with a net worth of $87 billion and all the toys that go with it: a ridiculous mansion, a private jet, a staff that tends to her every material need, and a best friend/assistant named Nicholas (Joel Kim Booster) who serves as her support system. What she lacks is any idea about what to do with the rest of her life. Reminded that she once set up a charitable foundation in her own name, Molly decides to give philanthropy a try, despite the concerns of serious-minded foundation head Sofia (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez from Pose).

Created by Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, who were responsible for Rudolph’s last lead TV role on Amazon’s ironically short-lived Forever, Loot has a high-concept premise it doesn’t want to fully commit to. Molly’s enormous wealth and fame — and the accompanying  obliviousness as to how the other 99 percent lives —  periodically create problems for Sofia. But for the most part, Loot is happy to move into the territory of a lighthearted workplace comedy. Nicholas starts out wondering how he went from partying around the globe with Molly to working in a cubicle, but very quickly he’s giving relationship advice to new colleagues Howard (Ron Funches) and Arthur (Nat Faxon), while Molly is taking Sofia and the other female staffers out for spa days, and Sofia is helping Molly figure out whether a handsome suitor is dating his beautiful assistant or if their flirtatious behavior is just because they’re both French.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with office-ensemble hijinks. Yang and Hubbard both wrote for Parks and Recreation, and Hubbard for 30 Rock, so they know this territory, even if those shows tended to offer much bigger laughs than the gentle humor mostly on display here. But the shift is emblematic of an indecisiveness that underlines almost everything Loot tries to do. It isn’t sure exactly what it wants its premise and structure to be — the first-season finale sets up an entirely new high-concept foundation for potential future seasons — nor how it wants to portray its central character. At times, Molly is an intentionally ridiculous caricature, at others deeply, vulnerably human. In the premiere, she has no memory of Howard, even though she got him the job because they’re cousins. Then a later episode has him bringing her to a gathering of that side of the family, and she recalls every tiny detail of her relationships there.

Rudolph can play these various Mollys, often to huge laughs. There’s a great bit in the third episode where she goes on Hot Ones to address a recent PR crisis, underestimating her tolerance for spices and overestimating her tolerance for beer. It is essentially a long sketch, but a hilarious one. And when Molly is being warmer, more sensitive, or simply chill — she and Arthur develop a relaxed friendship that he secretly hopes will become more — Rudolph makes that work, too. But it only sometimes feels like the same character from episode to episode.

Which brings us back to the larger Maya Rudolph conundrum. In many respects, she’s had a great post-SNL career, particularly when it comes to supporting or guest-star roles. In the last two years alone, she’s won a combined four Emmys for her voice work as Connie the Hormone Monstress on Big Mouth and for playing Kamala Harris on SNL. She was a crucial part of the ensemble that turned Bridesmaids into an enormous hit, and her presence is always welcome when she turns up on other people’s shows.

But putting her front and center hasn’t worked out quite as well(*), with her versatility often presenting something of a trap for the people building shows around her. It’s not that Rudolph is — to borrow the phrase that inspired the title of another Alan Yang co-created show — a jack of all trades, master of none. She is genuinely excellent at every individual idea she’s been asked to play in her career.

(*) Because Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson have four kids, she has also been more selective in choosing jobs. In a recent The Hollywood Reporter profile, Rudolph said she declined an opportunity to play the title role in Killing Eve because she didn’t want to spend months at a time living in Europe. As Sandra Oh demonstrated, that’s a character that would have simultaneously unleashed a lot of what Rudolph can do.

But because she can do almost anything, a temptation exists to create roles that allow her to do everything. And that can result in a tonal jumble like Loot, which feels like a lot of great raw material in search of a series to make sense of it all(*).

(*) This applies to the supporting cast as well as Rudolph. On the one hand, Nicholas’ character arc doesn’t really make sense; on the other, who can possibly complain about a show rushing to put Joel Kim Booster and Ron Funches into incredibly charming scenes together, by any means necessary?

When Rudolph was co-starring in the frequently-revamped NBC sitcom Up All Night, I wrote of her performance: “Rudolph in particular seems like someone the entertainment industry hasn’t quite figured out how to use properly yet, but when somebody does… look out.” That was nearly 11 years ago. I’m still waiting for someone to solve this particular puzzle, because the potential reward seems enormous. In its first season, Loot doesn’t quite get there. But with the reset promised by its finale, maybe the show will have a chance down the line.

The first three episodes of Loot begin streaming June 24 on Apple TV+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.

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