“Locked Down,” the latest and least heightened entry in the emerging (and hopefully short-lived) sub-genre of films shot during COVID-19, opens with a sight that won’t make sense until a bit later: The fattest possible hedgehog bumbling through a London garden like it’s been lapping up cheap wine all day. A few minutes later, Doug Liman’s mostly fun rallying cry for the rush of living counters that odd start with a sight that immediately makes all the sense in the world: Anne Hathaway screaming her way into a movie that was made amid the worst pandemic in more than a century.
Some people just have to act, and Hathaway’s effective performance as a frazzled CEO who’s forced to quarantine with her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is so big and busy that it feels like she’s trying to squeeze in enough acting to sustain her until this whole thing blows over.
Indeed, Hathaway was so eager to be on camera again that she’s agreed to reteam with Steven Knight in order to do it, even though it’s been less than two years since the great “Serenity” incident of 2019. In fairness to them both, Knight’s latest script hews much closer to his clever and contained work on “Locke” than it does to the Donald Kaufman-worthy shenanigans of his previous film, despite the fact that it was written in a hurry and still feels very much like a first draft.
That shagginess can occasionally sink the energy of a stir-crazy romance about two people who rediscover their lust for life (and maybe also for each other) while cooped up together in the same flat at the end of the world, but it also glazes the light and good-natured “Locked Down” with a palpable sense of the purgatorial torpor that we’ve all come to know so well. Most of our days aren’t shaped with a screenwriter’s intentionality and rife with exciting incident, and even the best of the Zoom calls can make us feel like we’re shouting into a vacuum. If so many of this movie’s COVID signifiers seem hacky in the here and now — video call echo, sourdough starters, a family member who’s always telling you about some article they read, etc. — they help cement this ultra-bougie comedy as Hollywood’s most realistic take on life during lockdown. At least until its stars conspire to steal a diamond worth $3 million from Harrods one night.
Yes, “Locked Down” is a heist movie, though one that’s more concerned with “stealing back the things that you feel life owes you” than it is with priceless jewels. And Paxton Riggs (Ejiofor) certainly believes that life has stolen a number of very precious things from him. Chief among them: The right to have a name as sick as Paxton Riggs. Once upon a time, Paxton was a rebel without a cause — a badass biker type who used to vroom around the world, dazzle beautiful women, and beat the shit out of the men who got in his way. Alas, it seems he punched one of them too hard; he won the fight, but lost the hope of ever landing a decent job again.
Ten years later, his marriage to Hathaway’s high-powered Linda Thurman has crashed and burned in large part because she’s rising to the top of a soulless corporation of some kind, and he’s been stuck working as a freight driver for a shipping service run by an ultra-devout Ben Kingsley (imagine if his character from “Sexy Beast” found Jesus). Recently furloughed and forced to sell his precious motorbike just to get by after the divorce, Paxton has now been stripped away the last remaining symbol of his manhood. Which makes him an unbearable roommate for his estranged wife, who’s just as desperate to shake free from what Paxton describes as “a fucking prison of psychological hell-chains.”
Linda might not share Paxton’s erratic head movements, but Hathaway finds plenty of other ways to express her character’s slow-motion meltdown: drinking wine, shouting into her bed sheets, drinking more wine, monologuing about the arbitrariness of Valkyries, firing her entire team over Zoom, monologuing about how the sinister forces of capitalism slithered up her legs like the snake from the Garden of Eden, chugging an entire carafe of wine, and manically dancing to Adam and the Ants in her pajamas. There’s some big, implosive, “Rachel Getting Married” anxiety at work in her performance, and while this material doesn’t allow for the same degree of range or depth, Hathaway still knows how to rattle the bars of a gilded cage without totally losing her charm.
Paxton and Linda are so full of pent-up energy that it can be exasperating to watch them try to expend it on each other ad nauseum — to the point that it feels as if Liman has only punctured the movie with so many Zoom calls in order to provide air holes for it to breathe through (and opportunities for socially distant cameos from the likes of Kingsley, Ben Stiller, and Mindy Kaling). It’s a small mercy, then, that “Locked Up” isn’t constrained to video apps; sad as it is to admit, there’s a small thrill in watching genuine movie stars like Ejiofor and Hathaway perform new material in glorious high-definition, even if they’re mostly doing it in their pajamas.
There’s an added rush to the errant scenes in which these characters wander outside, even if it’s just so that Paxton can regale the entire neighborhood with a dramatic reading of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Stand Up!” (“stand up for a new arrangement/for a chance of life all around/for freedom and the fun of living/bust in and hold the ground!”). And while the movie’s long transition into a low-key caper hinges on so many ridiculous coincidences that Linda can only ascribe them to God, it’s weirdly exciting to watch Ejiofor and Hathaway — both wearing masks — bust out of the house in order to slink through the iconic Harrods food court and the cavernous tunnels below.
Seeing famous people move through the COVID world freely without killing anybody feels like a heist unto itself, and the henpecked bickering between Paxton and Linda takes a backseat to the sheer joy of witnessing them safely reclaim a measure of freedom over their lives for a good cause (the robbery is partially intended to benefit the NHS). The same goes for the actors who play these characters, and for the crew who made the production around them possible. The best moments of “Locked Down” capture the same jolt of “I can’t believe they really did that” excitement surrounding the news that Liman is going to outer space to find with Tom Cruise. If you can stick through the cabin fever of it all and a painful Edgar Allen Poe runner that never finds a decent punchline, there’s a solid payoff waiting on the other side.
Most importantly, “Locked Down” doesn’t fully surrender to its context. The film might lose a lot of its charge if and when we ever get this virus under control, but Knight’s script uses the pandemic as more of a setting than a subject. COVID-19 serves as a fitting backdrop for an amiable romp about the freedoms we take for granted, and the confines that dictated our lives long before we were forced to spend them at home. “A complete re-examination of one’s life does seem to be a COVID side effect,” Linda sighs at one point, but here — in the kind of movie that would never get made with stars of this caliber if not for a global crisis — that deadly symptom can feel dangerously close to a silver lining.
“Locked Down” will be available to stream on HBOMax starting Thursday, January 14.