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Loot review: Maya Rudolph makes empathy thrillingly palpable

In this lavish comedy, Maya Rudolph plays the recently divorced wife of a tech CEO, who must figure out what to do with the fortune at her disposal 

Maya Rudolph in ‘Loot’
Maya Rudolph in ‘Loot’

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Break out the caviar. A truly lavish comedy has landed, fittingly enough, on the wealthiest of streaming services. Loot — streaming on Apple TV+ from June 24 — casts the fantastic Maya Rudolph as the wife of a tech CEO who has just divorced her husband. This leaves her marooned amid more money than she — or, truly, anyone — knows what to do with. 

The premise is as immense as the parallel is clear. The story of MacKenzie Scott is unique and inspirational. Scott, who got $36 billion following her divorce with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has since emerged as one of the world’s most active philanthropists, giving away her billions so enthusiastically — Forbes estimates $12.5 billion in donations in less than two years — that she may single-handedly make up for several of Amazon’s misdeeds. 

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A comedy series is the right vehicle for this unlikely narrative, which would likely be painfully sanctimonious as a drama. Loot is created by Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, who also made Rudolph’s rather special 2018 Amazon comedy Forever. More pertinently, both were writers on Mike Schur’s superb Parks And Recreation, a series Loot emulates more than one would expect. Is this heroic philanthropic narrative best suited to a gentle, even generic, workplace sitcom? I’m not so sure.

Rudolph plays Molly Wells, formerly married to tech tycoon John Novak, his name bringing to mind the recently disgraced tennis legend. After walking out on Novak — played by Adam Scott, who stars in the most superlative of Apple TV+ shows, Severance — she finds herself unmoored, partying in exotic locations, mistaking bartenders for Sting and falling into swimming pools.

She is an unflattering news item. The famed David Chang may be her in-house chef, but Molly takes most meals alone in her mansion while ignoring overtures from men like Malcolm Gladwell (he sends her New Yorker articles; she replies with exclamation marks). Hers is a life devoid of purpose — until she realises that there exists a charity foundation in her name, striving to help the unhoused people of Los Angeles. 

Thrilled by the idea of having an office — and, importantly, having her newly Novak-free name on the door — Molly starts going to the foundation regardless of the unambiguous discouragement from the foundation leader, the intimidating, no-nonsense Sofia Salinas, played by Michaela Jaé Rodriguez. Molly’s friend-slash-aide Nicholas (Joel Kim Booster) is right behind her, while other inhabitants of the office include accountant Arthur (Nat Faxon) and Molly’s distant cousin Howard (Ron Funches). 

As workplace comedies go, Loot has an excellent ensemble: Rodriguez is strong as the boss-lady unimpressed by wealth, Booster is highly entertaining as the obsequious assistant — a Birkin-only bag-man, if you will — and few comedians can deliver a line quite like the delightful Ron Funches. Surprised his billionaire cousin might be dating someone he considers beneath her, he says she can have anyone she wants. “They’ll probably make you a whole new Hemsworth,” he promises, “Give him a Gosling head.” 

“Never give a man too much money, especially a nerd,” says a character, skewering all technology moguls. Another hears the term “Black Twitter” and trying to find a counterpart, regrettably comes up with “White Facebook.” When Molly dresses up for a gala and starts trying out an acceptance speech on Nicholas, he asks if she wrote that herself. “Look at me in this dress!”, she exclaims, aghast. “Do I look like a writer?” 

Fair enough.

Despite the good lines, the writers may be the problem. Loot doesn’t engage with the premise’s ideas and questions. It is pleasant but unmemorable, which is criminal when Rudolph is doing such striking work. She makes empathy thrillingly palpable. Molly Wells is aggressively, desperately engaging with real people, connecting, trying to be one of them, trying not to judge them. This is a far cry from her mega-wealthy girlfriends forever trying to make the air around them more rarefied, their table more exclusive, their lives more out-of-touch. (In an early scene, when Molly says her yacht should have a full-time Crêpe-chef, it is suggested that they find one going through a divorce, likely to have more time to make pancakes at sea.) 

The show does have meaty ideas — the seductive power of big-ticket causes over less glamorous ones, for instance, or the ineffectuality of simply throwing money at problems  — and it all builds up to a big philanthropic idea in the season finale, one that could well make Loot an essential comedy in the future. However, even this potentially high-concept revelation isn’t exactly breaking new ground. The show would have been far richer had Molly had stumbled upon this within the first 2-3 episodes.

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I’m reminded of the 1994 film Richie Rich, where Macaulay Culkin took a bunch of kids back to his cartoonishly rich estate only for them to freak out at the fact that he had his very own McDonald's. Watching Rudolph go from gigayacht to private jet, from Corsica to a dreamy candy room, feels a bit like that. It’s aspirational wish-fulfilment, and there are joys to be had in watching Maya Rudolph and her friends have a ludicrously grand time on Apple’s dime. The ironic thing is that despite Loot’s budget, intent and credentials, it feels disappointingly generic. For now, it’s an off-the-rack sitcom, one you’ve seen before. May next year be bespoke.

Streaming tip of the week:

Joel Kim Booster, the breakout performer from Loot, was great in the Fire Island film a few months ago and has a new comedy special out this week. Psychosexual (Netflix) is an unapologetic, original and deeply personal special, with punchlines you’ll remember for days.

Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.

@rajasen

 

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