Locked Down: Strangely muddled COVID rom-com caper

I’m not sure about you guys, but I’m not particularly feeling this whole ‘Let’s make films set against the backdrop of COVID-19’ thing. Granted, I haven’t seen the bulk of examples on offer and am therefore refraining from any comment until I do so (if, indeed, I do) but, if Songbird is anything to go by, I have an unpleasant intuition that we’re going to be looking back on a sub-genre of misguided, callow and cheap-looking motion pictures set amongst the miserable pandemic that we’re currently enduring. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea, but I would appreciate seeing something that offered substantive commentary on COVID’s effects, not only as one of the worst threats we’ve ever faced in terms of our health but also its seemingly irrevocable ramifications on the foundations of our interactions as social animals.

Locked Down, the latest feature from Doug Liman, is a frustrating addition to this fad, its potentially excellent capacity as a two-hander scuppered by clumsy humour, pretentiousness and a flimsy hold on how it wants to handle verisimilitude.

Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a poetry-loving intellectual whose conviction for a near-fatal assault upon a pub bully 10 years ago relegates him to driving a delivery van. A reasonably nice chap, it appears that this event was an uncharacteristic if justifiable episode of defence that has left him with a woeful lack of career prospects. His partner Linda (Anne Hathaway) is a CEO for a U.S.-based fashion accessories corporation, and the pair are barely tolerating life together in their plush London home amid the initial COVID-19 lockdown. Paxton is deeply unsatisfied with the path his life has taken (and, as he says several times, ”Being locked up is making it worse”), familiarity having most certainly bred contempt between the two. Still, Paxton always finds time to loudly recite his favourite poems for their neighbours and engage in verbose and caustically witty Zoom exchanges with his American half-brother David (Dulé Hill).

Paxton’s employer Malcolm (Ben Kingsley) is in desperate need of a courier for an upcoming series of high-value deliveries and pick-ups, department stores stipulating that these can only be conducted by drivers who do not possess a criminal record. Having only Paxton to rely on, Malcolm has engineered a cunning plan to supply our hero with falsified identification so that he can get to work tout de suite. Linda, whose unhappiness has been bolstered by her being pressured to lay off several employees by her glib boss Solomon (Ben Stiller), has been assigned to go through the inventory of Harrods Limited and obtain a multi-million-pound diamond that her company’s owner has sold to an anonymous and shady customer, this endeavour coinciding with one of Paxton’s scheduled pick-ups. Throwing caution to the wind due to lockdown-induced mania, the couple discuss a deranged and daring criminal conspiracy whilst wrestling their not-particularly-dead feelings for one another.

So, why is this film rather annoying? I’ve always found Ejiofor to be a terrific actor, and his chemistry here with the very capable Hathaway actually goes some distance into creating a believably soured domesticity that is equal parts painful, poignant and sweet. Splendidly acted and raw scenes of honesty between the couple (referred to, in the lingo of Paxton’s therapist, as ‘confession avalanches’) lay the foundations for a captivating and understated drama dealing with relationships, maturity and potential reconciliation in an adult and intriguing manner. Sequences such as Paxton and Linda announcing their respective returns to hitherto abandoned addictions are infused with dry humour, discomfort and rapid-fire delivery that carries a not-unwelcome staginess as if they were characters in a work by Pinter or O’Neill.

This, however, all falls to shit when contrasted against, well, everything else. Scenes like Linda’s reluctant doling out of involuntary redundancies are stale and overdramatised with next to no emotional resonance, matched by the film’s tendency to jump on the contemporary bandwagon of writing comedic dialogue that is irritatingly repetitive and self-indulgent as opposed to witty, insightful or deftly absurdist (this bandwagon either has corroboration or I’m a truly crotchety and biased old curmudgeon well before my time). Paxton’s banter with half-brother David and Linda’s quasi-slapstick Zoom call with Solomon are narcissistic, lazy and tiresome, in that order.

Paxton’s raging jadedness and extensive vocabulary are somewhat humorous at the outset before sliding into ostentation, his frequent poetry reading to him and Linda’s fellow ‘prisoners’ of their street being one of the prime culprits of undoing. Not because there’s anything wrong with the verses or Ejiofor delivers them poorly, neither of those are true, but because it’s excruciatingly cheesy and carries about as much emotional weight as the perfunctory and meaningless ‘Clap For the NHS’ crap that has recently returned. It is intended to add gravity to Paxton as a cerebral wildman, but it feels hollow and embarrassing. By the time the couple’s focal criminal escapades roll around, we’re in full sub-par caper comedy, Steven Knight’s script ultimately feeling like some insane blend of his own common themes, Richard Curtis tropes and Joanna Hogg-style interpersonal acrimony.

It’s a real shame because Locked Down truly felt like it had something going for it in the early stages. While unremarkable, Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography and John Powell’s score are perfectly serviceable and, had the narrative dispensed with the Harrods heist farce and ill-advised humour and added more layers to Ejiofor and Hathaway’s interplay, we could have been looking at one of 2021’s first strong mainstream dramas. Instead, we’re left with unfunny and discombobulated hokum that merely teases. I would say give it a watch for the lead performances but, as there really isn’t any payoff, why bother?

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