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When A-list talent gets bored: A COVID-19 fairytale

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Nine Emmy nominations, seven Academy Award nominations, four BAFTAs, a hedgehog named Sonic and Zoom. These are the ingredients at director Doug Liman’s (“American Made”) disposal in “Locked Down,” a romantic-comedy heist movie that tries far too hard to be relevant. In the film, Anne Hathaway (“Les Misérables”) plays Linda, a disillusioned CEO longing to…

Nine Emmy nominations, seven Academy Award nominations, four BAFTAs, a hedgehog named Sonic and Zoom. These are the ingredients at director Doug Liman’s (“American Made”) disposal in “Locked Down,” a romantic-comedy heist movie that tries far too hard to be relevant.

In the film, Anne Hathaway (“Les Misérables”) plays Linda, a disillusioned CEO longing to reprise her wild and free youth. Linda is cohabitating with ex-partner Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”), a similarly disillusioned van driver and motorcyclist with a particularly bleak outlook on life. The pair met at a biker rally in South Dakota when they were young; life led them down different paths, and their relationship has crumbled into near oblivion.

However, the two cannot simply separate. London is on lockdown, and the COVID-19 pandemic spells opportunity for Linda and Paxton. Their working worlds collide, and the perfect crime appears. Steal a diamond, sell it and split the proceeds with the overworked National Health Service.

As is to be expected, the stellar cast carries the film. Without Hathaway’s convincing frustration and impassioned monologues or Ejiofor’s almost comical poetic despair, the film would have been a total flop. More comical, however, is the portion of the film conducted over video-chat. Ben Stiller (“Zoolander”) and Mindy Kaling (“Ocean’s 8”) only ever appear on Zoom. Claes Bang (“The Square”) is confined to Skype, while Ben Kingsley’s (“Ghandi”) domain is FaceTime. In this strange era of our lives, when we see very little of one another, and only then on small screens, this bit of realism is eerily surreal.

This will be one of many films made during and about the pandemic. If COVID-19 feature films will be made from Zoom calls, I’m not sure I’ll want to watch any more of them. The one possibly pandemic-imposed and beneficial aspect of the film, however, was the close-quarters setting of Linda and Paxton’s home. Largely shot by hand, the confinement of the film’s frequent monologues to just a few rooms lends a theatrical quality often absent in blockbuster cinema. Hathaway and Ejiofor play off of one another naturally. The unnatural dialogue easily gives way, allowing talented actors to embrace character and emotion as they might on stage.

Unfortunately, the premise is cumbersome and contrived. A fanciful degree of care has been taken by Steven Knight (“Locke”), the film’s writer, to eliminate any ethical questions about this heist. The “losers” are CEOs and warlords, while the NHS gets a briefcase stuffed with cash. The sheer notion of a lockdown-induced crisis of identity, faith or purpose is dubious, and ironically, trite. Knight tried unsuccessfully to weave issues of substance use and sobriety, stifled creativity, dysphoria and flawed relationships around the elephantine pandemic in the room. 

“Locke,” also written by Knight, is evidence that he is more than capable of creating a compelling and psychologically complex screenplay. Forced to incorporate the pandemic through which we continue to trudge and slog, Knight’s writing will be ensnared by the viewer’s cynicism and “COVID fatigue.” While Knight treats the pandemic with an appropriate degree of nuance, the amount of personal catastrophizing is excessive and already feels like a tired trope. What I wouldn’t give for a rom-com/crime flick uncomplicated by tremendous death and global horror.

Perhaps “Locked Down” just needed more time. Still in the thick of the pandemic, the film is not funny. A CEO’s sudden crisis of conscience is pure fantasy to the cultural critic, and her poetry-loving cohabitator’s wallowing is, frankly, just sad. The film only has power when Hathaway and Ejiofor are free to really act; this power is insulted when Ejiofor’s acting is filtered through the too-familiar blur of video chat. Had these actors been given something fresh and timeless, the film would be a knockout. Unfortunately, the stale and affected story mires their talent in the muck of contemporary society.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at [email protected]

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

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