While not the first film set during COVID-19, HBO Max’s Locked Down claims the dubious honor of being the worst so far. Sure, there are all the squirm-inducing moments of familiarity that feel overfamiliar when used in a cutesy pandemic film released while the pandemic is still well underway, but much of that distasteful exploitation dissipates when the film dives headfirst into a heist. Right. Let me explain, because the movie barely does. Instead of turning to online ordering and binge-watching, estranged couple Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—who are forced into physical closeness in their London apartment while they’re at their most emotionally distant—turn to that classic stress reliever, diamond theft. If only that stoned, 3 AM premise was as weirdly wild in execution as its surprise announcement promised. Instead, Locked Down is a crushing miscalculation on every level that should’ve stayed locked up.
Unfortunately for all of us, the actual heist part of the film doesn’t start until more than halfway through the film. That means we’ve got an hour to suffer through a very, very strange relationship dramedy. Director Doug Liman’s cheeky thrillers peaked with the razor-sharp Edge of Tomorrow and without those thrills, the chemistry of Mr. & Mrs. Smith or a decent script, his presence is limited, to say the least. That leaves writer Steven Knight, whose last project was the twist-filled good-bad Serenity—a “hypnotically bizarre, bug-eyed nuts, deliciously stupid” movie, according to our critic. Locked Down is like if Serenity somehow polluted the drinking water in Marriage Story, creating an ill, impotent genre mutant.
Paxton and Linda are both in the midst of boring breakdowns. One’s underemployed, the other’s unfulfilled at a corporate job. Their relationship is already kaput, and the only thing that’s new is the lockdown order forcing their disparate depressions into friction. The film’s plot kicks off with the plodding unenthusiasm of its pajama-clad duo (the wardrobe being perhaps the thing Locked Down gets most right about the pandemic) meandering about the home, getting on each other’s nerves in scenes that’re both undershot and overwritten.
A handheld camera in awkward positions (just fit into whatever space is left in the room) films hyper-talky, try-hard cleverness—with the jittery cadence of an insecure stand-up comedian’s patter—as the tone skids wildly all over the road. These serpentine swerves alternate between these desperate, drowning victim grasps at comedy, utter bleakness (Paxton contemplating suicide), the actual concerns of life under COVID (masks and social distancing get brief moments) and infuriating quirkiness like a friendly garden hedgehog, stoned on local poppies; Ejiofor standing in the middle of his street shouting poetry to his “fellow inmates” and a surreally bad seduction. The worst part is, none are quite bad or weird enough to be fun. The couple have nothing simmering under the surface, instead possessing a kind of matching magnetic polarity that resists any attempt to unite them. When they eventually do kiss, you think they’re going to bounce off of each other, repelled by an invisible field.
Hathaway and Ejiofor are erratic with an inconsistent, overcaffeinated energy, rattling off monologues in a play-like atmosphere that’s only a degree or so different than watching a self-indulgent table read on YouTube—only this is for profit, not charity. Hathaway’s messy sellout is a caricature of her excellent turn as Colossal’s alcoholic heart, while Ejiofor’s gluttonous performance has an even bigger appetite for scenery.
When the two aren’t holding these strange, performative conversations, the rest of the film is spent watching people spottily Zoom each other—which is perhaps the least cinematic situation since movies decided to try to film writers coming up with ideas. And, worst of all, these limp, literally phoned-in performances from the cameo cast (Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, Dulé Hill, Jazmyn Simon, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley) come after Host proved that a whole movie shot on Zoom can not only work, but use its form to its benefit. Locked Down isn’t endearingly scrappy in its visual execution, just impersonal and uninspired enough to tease at what it lacks.
And then, after about an hour, it finally broaches the idea of robbery. The catalyst is some hastily explained, nebulous blue-collar subterfuge—all of which ends a bit like a thrownaway CollegeHumor take on a Mission: Impossible assignment, including Paxton having to use the alias of “Edgar Allen Poe” and there being many jokes about the illiterate working class—which makes very little sense but has to do with both of their jobs: Paxton is a driver and Linda has one of those vague-yet-important Jobs In Media that’s exactly as malleable as the plot needs it to be. It turns out that, thanks to their new assignments, they can steal a diamond, stored at Harrods department store, and easily get away with it.
The heist becomes little more than a labored metaphor for their continued relationship, a spark of rebellion and danger for these two dull people that don’t seem to like each other and barely seem to know each other. It’s also a bit of angry, “fuck the man” rebellion aimed at a capitalist system that sees the rich get richer in times of rampant unemployment, which the film sprinkles in throughout in association with the pair’s unhappy careers. For something so relatable—aside from the whole “access to diamonds” thing—Locked Down goes to every length to push us away with its mean, condescending characters and tone-deaf confidence in its own locked-up premise.
Locked Down has all the slipshod signs of running headlong into a topical story far too quickly: The scenario doesn’t work because nobody’s had the decency to wait and think, nor the maturity of thought that time brings an idea. It’s an extended sketch, conceived in and performed with a sense of vulturing desperation. In fact, it makes so many bafflingly wrong decisions that, if it didn’t have so many boring Zoom calls and was a lot more brisk, Locked Down might’ve been a perfect good-bad quarantine hatewatch for the New Year. As it stands, it’s simply a terrible slap-in-the-face greeting to the new HBO Max subscribers that Wonder Woman 1984 didn’t already drive off.
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, Lucy Boynton, Dulé Hill, Jazmyn Simon, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley
Release Date: January 14, 2021 (HBO Max)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.