Following a potential political sex scandal through the eyes of the politician, “Zipper” plays like an odd hybrid of “Shame” and a season-long subplot on “House of Cards.” Tawdry but cripplingly self-serious, the second feature from Mora Stephens (a full decade after her little-seen, also politically themed debut “Conventioneers”) benefits from Patrick Wilson’s committed star turn. Still, the awkward end product would inevitably struggle in theatrical venues, making it more advisable to play to the base and go straight to VOD and premium cable.
Federal prosecutor Sam Ellis (Wilson) is on the fast track in national politics. He’s got it all: high-profile career success, good looks, charm, a well-connected and shrewdly strategic wife, Jeannie (Lena Headey), and a clean-cut image as someone who wants to punish the bad and protect the good. Sam even rejects the advances of comely intern Dalia (Dianna Agron) when they share a drunken kiss after a work-related celebration.
But when he interviews an alluring young escort (Elena Satine) as a witness on a case, his mind starts wandering and his libido takes over. Usually content to masturbate to online porn, Sam investigates a high-class escort service, eventually working up the nerve to arrange a date when Jeannie is away for a long weekend.
Although he almost backs out, the sweetly seductive Christy (Alexandra Breckenridge, superb in a single scene) lures him in hook, line and sinker. And even though Sam promises it was “just a one time thing,” he’s soon making regular calls on his burner phone to book appointments with a different girl every time.
The suspense, then, becomes twofold: First, as Sam’s behavior grows increasingly obsessive and difficult to control it’s clear the film is trying in some way to explore the dangers of sex addiction. And secondly, what will happen when Sam is inevitably found out? Will his political career go down in flames? Will Jeannie be more upset about the cheating or the possibility that their carefully mapped out future (she dreams of being First Lady) might fall apart?
Stephens and her spouse/co-writer Joel Viertel aim for a sophisticated nail-biter but wind up more in the rarely mined territory of early ‘90s erotic thriller. Antonio Calvache’s slick, hyperactive camerawork and Viertel’s occasionally frenzied editing do a solid job of putting the audience inside Sam’s head, but just as often have the sheen of a lurid potboiler, in over its head when it comes to the thematic concerns.
Unfortunately, the script has a nasty habit of explicitly spelling out those themes in clunky dialogue. “Why do we hold politicians to a higher standard when it comes to marriage and adultery?” asks Sam. The film’s ultimately cynical take on cheating politician won’t really help audiences reach any greater clarity on that issue.
The often underappreciated Wilson is ideally cast as a self-pitying philanderer. Sam’s privileged lifestyle offers plenty of comforts, but Wilson renders an impressive study of a man who is never quite satisfied with what he has, owing both to personal demons and being in the position to get anything he wants. (In one of the film’s best twists, Sam essentially takes charge of investigating his favorite escort agency — the better to protect himself.)
The supporting cast is largely squandered, including Richard Dreyfuss and Ray Winstone in roles that threaten to become more menacing than they ever really do. But that’s more intriguing than what the script offers Agron and a barely seen John Cho.
Headey’s stock wife role picks up in the third act when Jeannie is faced with a thorny moral dilemma of her own and the savvy thesp more than rises to the challenge. Penelope Mitchell is another standout as a college dropout-turned-escort who bonds with Sam in a surprising way. Their contrasting pair of dialogue scenes — one professional, the other devastatingly personal — pack more punch than the entire rest of the film.
Sundance Film Review: 'Zipper'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 27, 2015. Running time: 112 MIN.
A Magnolia Financial Group presentation of a Protozoa Pictures and 33 Pictures production in association with Hyphenate Films. (International sales: Company, City.) Produced by R. Bryan Wright, Amy Mitchell-Smith, Mark Heyman, Joel Viertel, Marina Grasic. Executive producers, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel, Darren Aronofsky, Danya Duffy, Jan Korbelin, Beau Chaney, Christian Oliver. Co-producers, Deborah Aquila, Julianne Hausler.
Directed by Mora Stephens. Screenplay, Stephens, Joel Viertel. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Antonio Calvache; editor, Viertel; music, H. Scott Salinas; music supervisor, Sean Mulligan; production designer, Hannah Beachler; set decorators, Gretchen Gattuso, Deanna Simmons; costume designer, Shauna Leone; sound, Mark LeBlanc; supervising sound editors, D. Chris Smith, Glenn T. Morgan; re-recording mixers, Will Riley, D. Chris Smith; stunt coordinator, Bill Scharpf; line producer, Charles Rapp; assistant director, Julian M. Brain; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood.
Patrick Wilson, Lena Headey, Richard Dreyfuss, Ray Winstone, John Cho, Dianna Agron, Christopher McDonald, Alexandra Breckenridge, Penelope Mitchell, Kelton DuMont, Elena Satine.