With COVID lockdowns becoming our new reality for the past year or so, it was probably inevitable that they’d eventually become our movie reality too. Which means that Doug Liman’s new film for HBO Max, Locked Down, set in a contemporary locked-down London, is probably just the first of its kind. Torn from our living rooms!
Sure, you’ve been trapped inside small drab rooms yammering into Zoom windows for the past year, but what if Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor were the ones trapped inside the small drab rooms, and the Zoom windows contained a rotating cast of celebrities, like Ben Stiller and Ben Kingsley and Mindy Kaling and Stephen Merchant? Wouldn’t that be worth watching?
Sadly, not really. Locked Down is a “heist movie” with no heist. In the place of things happening, it has people talking about things happening. Rather than feeling cathartic, it’s merely banal, yet another unwelcome reminder of our own isolation. Please can we just get two hours of good-looking, well-dressed people with fresh haircuts hanging out together in a crowded bar? That would be a welcome kind of escapism.
Anyway, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway play Paxton and Linda, a partnered but unmarried couple of 10 years, who had made the decision to uncouple just before the lockdown order came down and now, unhappily cohabitating, are stuck in a row house driving each other a bit nuts.
Ejiofor’s character is, separately and simultaneously: a neurotic, a biker, an ex-con, a poet, a former heroin addict, sober for 10 years, and works as a delivery driver. Hathaway’s character, meanwhile, is: someone who used to date a heroin-loving biker, an ex-pagan, slightly bisexual, and the well-to-do, extremely put together current UK CEO of some kind of fashion company. If, on paper, it seems like all those quirks don’t really add up to coherent characters let alone explain compatibility, well, it’s also true in practice.
We discover all of these things gradually, through various arguments between the two and their separate Zoom calls with acquaintances and employers, as varied as Paxton’s boss at the delivery company, played by Ben Kingsley, and Anne Hathaway’s boss at her retail company, played by Ben Stiller. It seems as if writer Steven Knight (Allied, Eastern Promises) imagined the heist, and then worked backwards from there, building the kind of characters one might need to pull it off. Trouble is, Locked Down is a two-hour movie in which the “heist” doesn’t happen until about an hour 40, and so we spend most of the run time “exploring” these characters, who don’t seem like they were initially intended to be explored. They seem more like utilitarian combinations of quirks now shorn of their utility, like box trucks forced to race the Indy 500.
Mostly they spend the movie describing past action in expository dialogue. Hey, remember that thing that happened? Of course I do! But surely you must remember that other thing that also happened…
Hearing characters describe a story, naturally, isn’t nearly as compelling as seeing that story, and it creates in the present characters who don’t make much sense — Ejiofor the affable, ex-con neurotic biker poet, Anne Hathaway playing her character as a standard manic rom-com white professional lady, frequently exasperated with little provocation. It’s hard to enjoy them in the present with them constantly describing a past that doesn’t seem to connect.
Director Doug Liman, so brilliant at shooting people doing in movies like Edge of Tomorrow, American Made, Go, etc, seems to have painted himself into a very talky corner in Locked Down, and apparently put in a lot of work to do so. He was so convinced that people would be desperate to watch a movie about a pandemic lockdown that he brainstormed a movie in July, flew all the way to London on a prop plane to shoot Locked Down in September, and spent the next few months editing in time for release this week in January. It’s often said that art thrives on limitations, but Locked Down wears its rushed schedule and logistical difficulties on its sleeve. That so many characters are never in the same room feels more like a practical consideration than a narrative one. Which makes Locked Down understandable, just not… well… watchable.
That Doug Liman and Anne Hathaway and Stephen Merchant and the gang got to keep doing what they do during this whole thing is genuinely inspiring, but more in an abstract way than a must-see TV way. Locked Down is probably best appreciated as a sort of WPA make-work project for the crew and actors rather than something to watch. Hopefully, it’s remembered as an anomaly and not a harbinger of a new normal.