Review: Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor shout a lot in the mixed-bag COVID caper ‘Locked Down’
Is it too soon? It’s already too late to ask, of course, given how many pandemic-themed entertainments (if that’s the word) the movie industry has cranked out. Last year brought a wave of low-budget, up-to-the-minute freakouts like “Host,” about a Zoom séance gone horribly awry, and the Michael Bay-produced “Songbird,” set in a future doomed by rapidly mutating variants of COVID-19. I tend to believe it’s never too early for artists and entertainers to start making sense of the proverbial Way We Live Now, though with many more such pictures to come on the not-so-distant, barely brightening horizon, the more relevant question might not be whether it’s too soon but too many.
This week’s installment is “Locked Down,” a new romantic comedy/heist thriller starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple in the early weeks of COVID cohabitation hell. Conceived on the fly last summer, shot in 18 days under strict safety protocols and headed to an HBO Max queue near you, the movie is slicker and starrier than most of its quarantine-themed ilk, though it’s a low-budget lark by Hollywood standards. It certainly gets points for speed, thrift and resourcefulness, though I’m warier than usual of mistaking those qualities for — well, quality. I’m wary in general of making any definitive pronouncements about “Locked Down,” whose charms and irritations (and it has its share of both) are largely a matter of timing and perspective.
It’s possible that this movie, directed by Doug Liman from a bickersome script by Steven Knight, might play better in postpandemic times — that with some distance, we’ll look back more fondly on its already quaint jokes about incessant bread-making, pot-banging and toilet paper hoarding. We may also be less inclined to roll our eyes at the sight of two beautiful actors slumming in PJs and bemoaning the horror of being stuck for weeks on end in a comfortable-looking London home. With its steady stream of famous faces popping up on random Zoom calls (they include Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling and Stephen Merchant), the movie occasionally brings to mind a nonmusical version of that celebrity “Imagine” medley that darkened the earliest days of the pandemic, though “Locked Down” is significantly longer and significantly more endurable.
That’s mainly due to the lead actors, who, despite a wobbly opening stretch and a few too many self-pitying, self-justifying monologues, eventually succeed in filling out the thin, snarky sketches they’ve been given to play. Paxton (Ejiofor) and Linda (Hathaway) are a longtime couple who made plans to separate shortly before lockdown began, and who have since spent months together in inescapably close quarters. If love no longer binds them, misery does. When they’re not engaging in verbal sparring matches — sometimes with each other, sometimes with Paxton’s half-brother and his wife (Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon) — they’re relinquishing years of hard-won sobriety: Linda takes up smoking cigarettes again, while the more adventurous Paxton, a former heroin addict, avails himself of the opiates he’s discovered growing in their yard.
You can’t begrudge them, really; you might even light one up in solidarity. The stresses of working from home weigh heavily on Linda, a brittle corporate executive who continues to rise in the ranks even as her company keeps downsizing. (Remi Adefarasin’s brisk handheld camerawork is supplemented by extended satirical Zoom conversations, amusingly tricked out with random freeze-frames, audio blips and other technical snafus.) It’s a soul-sucking job but at least Linda is working, unlike Paxton, a delivery driver who’s been furloughed and has lost any sense of will or purpose. He’s being forced to sell his beloved motorcycle, a belabored image of his lost freedom, though he still has poetry in his soul; at night he ventures out into the street to deliver loud, anguished and frankly insufferable recitations to their neighbors.
The two make a tidy study in contrasts, and also a convenient pair of symbols: By making Linda a high-positioned cog in the capitalist machinery that ruthlessly exploits underemployed but essential workers like Paxton, Knight tries to wrap a lesson about socioeconomic inequality and class privilege in a Hollywood comedy of remarriage. Liman made his own noisy contribution to that genre years ago with the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie blockbuster “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and he revisits the formula in agreeably scaled-down fashion here, suggesting that Linda and Paxton’s tedious imprisonment may hold the key to their spiritual and romantic survival. The director also pays low-key homage to some of the better action pictures he’s made, chiefly “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow” — a very different movie from “Locked Down,” though one in which time also becomes something of a flat circle.
How Linda and Paxton go from butting heads in close quarters to planning a daring high-stakes robbery at Harrods is best left undisclosed. Suffice to say that Knight, an erratic storyteller but often a dab hand at plotting, devises a scheme that makes counterintuitively fun use of COVID conditions: plummeting economies, corporate damage-control strategies and an eerily underpopulated London where social distancing inevitably means lax security measures. (One distracting note: the presence of multiple unmasked characters in close proximity, which may of course be a depressingly accurate representation of reality.)
Knight has collaborated with the two leads before, with Ejiofor in the very good “Dirty Pretty Things” and with Hathaway in the misbegotten “Serenity.” For all their screwball speechifying, the actors are in decent form here; their characters get on each other’s nerves and ours too, which under the circumstances is only fitting. And their task — to hold our attention for the better part of two hours in a confined location — is trickier than it appears. Hathaway and Ejiofor must convince us not only that these two oil-and-water personalities ultimately belong together but also that the light-fingered genre exercise they’re participating in has a place under these uniquely desperate circumstances.
They don’t entirely succeed, which says something about the movie but also about the uncertain, nerve-fraying moment of its reception. Is it possible to root for two characters who plan to commit robbery — even as a form of nose-thumbing rebellion against the capitalist status quo — during a health crisis that has destroyed the lives and taken the jobs of countless souls less privileged than they are? Can a movie about the everyday realities of our crushing new normal also be a breezy piece of Hollywood escapism? At its infrequent best, “Locked Down” suggests that it can. Or rather, that someday it might.
Rating: R, for language throughout and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 14 on HBO Max
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