‘Locked Down’ Schemes a Pandemic-Era Heist With Great Chemistry

Locked Down” arrives as the first big studio romantic comedy set within our current pandemic reality. Time will tell how it will play in later years, but for anyone deciding to check it out on HBO Max this week, it’s a breezy, hilariously grumpy effort. Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor are placed in a rather standard heist plot where upper middle class people decide their lives are missing some of the spark from their younger (poorer) days. However, what works well is how these two endlessly charming actors become conduits for all the quirks, oddities and frustrations many of us have endured behind closed doors since early 2020. 

Hathaway and Ejiofor are Linda and Paxton, a London couple who have decided to call it quits. As luck would have it, it’s the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has forced them to be stuck together in their plush home. Both are also suffering inevitable work tensions due to the global situation. Linda is the CEO of the UK branch of a major corporation, Paxton is a transport driver forever cursed by an arrest from years ago. When the two met they were younger, wild rebels. All that is left from that time are Paxton’s leather jacket and motorcycle, which he is selling off. Because of stoppages and businesses closing down, Linda is being instructed to carry out a whole parade of firings which naturally breed more stress. Meanwhile Paxton is being instructed by his boss, Malcolm (Ben Kingsley), that due to new hiring practices he needs to now assume a fake ID and accept cash, if he wishes to transport valuable merchandise out of shops in shutdown. When Linda realizes one of the companies Paxton has to pick up merchandise for is her own, she gets tempted to pull off a plan involving a priceless diamond.

How you take in “Locked Down” might depend on how much stock you put in entertaining dialogue. Made in the continuing industry chaos of the pandemic, the film was shot back in August and was undoubtedly written in bursts of real time inspiration. Director Doug Liman knows how to work on small and big budgets, with titles like “Swingers” and “Edge of Tomorrow” to his credit, while the screenplay is by Steven Knight, who wrote the 2013 “Locke,” where the entire focus is on Tom Hardy enduring a riveting thriller on his phone. What they fashion is a movie where the heist is almost a quick, clunky add-on. The real humor and engagement is in the first two acts, where Linda and Paxton bring back all that disoriented frustration from the early days of lockdown, when we were all getting used to forced confinement mixed with the fear of a spreading threat. 

You could say this is a film about first world problems, which is what makes it acidly funny. Linda and Paxton have a great house and neither is sure as to why their marriage is falling apart. Maybe it is boredom or the frustration of doing jobs they don’t necessarily like. When Linda has to fire colleagues via Zoom the script has fun with the sheer awkwardness of carrying out serious business from a distance, with a fired colleague storming off and his kid showing off his toy dinosaurs in front of the camera. A slick New York contact arranging the sale of an expensive piece of jewelry creepily confesses to Linda over Zoom that he wants to see her, because she never bothered to let anyone at work know she’s married. While Anne Hathaway has always been able to show off her comedic chops, Chiwetel Ejiofor has some of the truly funny moments in this movie. He’s cranky and confused, trying opium from poppy seeds junkies reveal they grow in his garden. To let off steam he walks out into the middle of the street and reads out poetry to the neighbors. Even Linda eventually takes part in the pan-banging rituals some cities witnessed by residents desperate for social contact. 

Some of the other humor is more familiar to the rom-com genre, but it works in a light way. When Malcolm informs Paxton his fake employee name will be “Edgar Allan Poe” Paxton can’t believe it. But soon enough he discovers in a post-reading world no one seems to know or care who Edgar Allan Poe is. The rest of the plot then goes into a bit of autopilot with the diamond heist, although the movie takes advantage to give us a tour of how high-end boutiques started packing and moving all their valuables when lockdowns swept the world. There are some pleasant scenes where Linda and Paxton walk through a plus deli, grabbing what they can and indulging. We can almost guess the beats, because we’ve seen them in countless other movies. But these two actors are so good we don’t mind enduring our memories of an early Covid world with them. Light satire abounds too in scenes where a former co-worker of Linda’s, who she had to fire earlier, wonders if robbing the rich should be allowed in a time when shutdowns have taken away jobs, yet granted a strange freedom to people from their mundane routines. 

“Locked Down” delivers inevitable moments of candy-flavored movie romance as well, but with a little more cynical edge. Linda and Paxton are not a starry-eyed Hollywood couple. They are frustrated and tired, and the pandemic has now forced them to reassess what they really want. When Linda is caught secretly smoking at home and she describes that trip to Paris with a bunch of CEOs that she never bothered to tell Paxton about, the dialogue has a comedic realism. We laugh but nod a little in recognition, because this is how a tired out relationship does sound. Yet there’s nothing in the movies like a bit of crime to put the passion back in. “Locked Down” may not be a perfect comedy or heist film, but it’s not the worst attempt at trying to make a quick entertainment out of a surreal year we just survived. When Hathaway and Ejiofor get on a motorcycle and ride through empty, nighttime streets, a jetliner streaking by in the sky, they manage to capture a little something of how we all felt in 2020. We just wanted to get away, or at least be able to laugh a little.

Locked Down” begins streaming Jan. 14 on HBO Max.