Review: Political drama ‘Zipper’ becomes ‘Reefer Madness’ for sex addiction

Just as sex scandals are pretty much as old as politics themselves, as long as we've had films, we've had cinematic depictions of sex scandals, usually serious and sometimes comedic. Whether filmmakers have had to be coy about the nature of the scandals — see “The Best Man” or “Advise and Consent” — or whether filmmakers have been able to directly tear sex scandals from the headlines — see “Primary Colors” — the ground has been fertile.

Fortunately — Unfortunately? — sex scandals just keep coming along and we keep lapping them up, from Eliot Spitzer to John Edwards to Anthony Weiner.

Bringing the genre to Sundance this year was “Zipper,” a largely straight-faced approach to a plausibly finger-on-the-pulse topic, which falls flat because of a middle act in which the drama spirals into dated addiction craziness. When it's a political thriller, “Zipper” is respectably acted and presented and has some merit. But for nearly 30 minutes, “Zipper” descends into utter ludicrousness and becomes a laughable “Reefer Madness” with high class escorts.

There's no indication that director and co-work Mora Stephens intends for her main character's sex binge to be hilarious, but I spent a long time giggling nervously before settling in for a better-than-expecting conclusion propelled by Lena Headey's very strong — if accent-challenged — performance.

“Zipper” just secured distribution with Alchemy today and it'll heading to theaters and OnDemand later this year.

Full review below…

Written by Stephens and Joel Viertel, Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson) is a corruption-busting prosecutor with his eye on a slowly building political career. Thanks to wife Jeannie (Lena Headey), Sam has connections to his state's political establishment and his Golden Boy image makes him a perfect candidate for office, especially when veteran operative George Hiller (Richard Dreyfuss) offers him the opportunity to skip several steps and make a play for a national race.

Everything looks great for Sam, but he's got appetites, appetites that are stirred up when a nubile intern (Dianna Agron, successfully the embodiment of flirting temptation, but not given an actual character) tries to seduce him. Clearly Sam's got needs that aren't being fulfilled at home, even though his wife is quite affectionate, but he's in luck! His firm has just had dealings with an illicit high prized escort service. At first he's nervous, but once he tries paying $1000-an-hour for sex, he can't get enough.

Perhaps because “Zipper” exists in a universe in which high-price escorts look like Elena Satine, Alexandra Breckenridge and “Vampire Diaries” veteran Penelope Mitchell, Sam is soon becoming just a wee bit hooker-obsessed, which  isn't ideal since he's being watched by the strangest cinematic rendering of a reporter I've ever seen in a long time. Nigel Coaker (Ray Winstone) lives in a random Southern berg and writes puff pieces for various magazine, but he's making enough money to live in an absurdly fancy house and to toss scarves over his shoulder like he's John Q. RollingStone or something. He's an absurd character, but not the worst thing in “Zipper.”

“Zipper” sets itself up reasonably well. I wasn't enraptured, but I also wasn't cringing when it came to any of the political or legal dialogue, which counts as a plus in my book. And it's not like there's anything fresh to the set-up, but there's a handsome chilliness to Stephens' direction and to Antonio Calvache's cinematography, setting up the sexual infernos to come.

While there's something a bit too facile in the irony of this perfect boy scout tackling fraud and impropriety when we know that he's about to be torn asunder by his own libido, at least Patrick Wilson is perfect casting for this sort of role. Wilson is, in fact, always at his best when filmmakers find a way to acknowledge that he's frustratingly, implausibly good-looking and then find a way to undercut that. I don't quite know why Wilson had to make his character Southern — Filmed in Louisiana, I think the location may be South Carolina, but only a few of the supporting characters are bothering to care — but at least he's consistent with the accent. From “Angels in America” to “Little Children,” Wilson's best performance mode is always when he plays characters initially look perfect, turn out to be tightly wound and and then the yarn begins to fray and unspool.

It's a gift, but it's a gift that has to be deployed in the right situations and Stephens loses all sense of proportion. The first visit with Sam and an escort (a firecracker Alexandra Breckenridge) is actually quite interesting because of the mindgame that plays out as Sam tries to fight his increasingly vocal demons and “Christy” tries to reassure, cajole and manipulate him into the thing he always wanted. This is hardly the first film to illustrate the psychological component in the upper ends of prostitution, but it does it decently and Wilson plays his side well. From there, things go nuts. [The “Zipper” treatment of the technological world of these escorts is also a little absurd, both from the low-rent websites to the all-too-public browsing to the burner phones, this all felt like it's maybe five years behind the curve.]

In almost no time, Sam has become a burner-phone-tossing, Wilson-withdrawing, bug-eyed, sweat-popping hooker monster. I return again to the “Reefer Madness” theory of addiction, in which a single toke is the gateway drug to rape, murder and mass hysteria. That's all the nuance “Zipper” has when it comes to Sam and his trouser monster, because once that sucker is unleashed, it's determined to come out and play at every opportunity and there's no chance for caution or common sense. If “Zipper” is trying to suggest that maybe Sam wasn't all that controlled to begin with, it's not in the text. If “Zipper” is trying to suggest that maybe Sam was self-destructive and didn't aspire to political elevation in the first place, it's not in the text. What's in the text is Sam driving around town like a lunatic in pursuit of his next whore score, wandering out into traffic like a sex-crazed zombie, staggering around after an accident like a wounded terminator with one directive: “Must. Pay. For. Sex.” Would that there could be, but there's just no way to bring “Zipper” back from that brink. 

And Lena Headey tries. Some people will look at Lena Headey's Jeannie and say, “Well, she's just playing Cersei Lannister in a modern suit” and I'd said, “Well, sure. Lena Headey's never had a better role than Cersei Lannister and she's spectacular in that role. What's wrong with that?” Headey's Jeannie is a woman who could have pursued power herself, but instead decided to play puppetmaster, either constrained by or working around prescribed gender roles. When she begins to sense that her puppet isn't as well-behaved as she'd hoped, she has to go into action to protect both her investment and her sacrifice. Headey plays the role as calculating, seductive and difficult-to-read, in the best way possible. Watching Headey and Jeannie operate in the last act threatens to save “Zipper.”

I needed more of Headey and Jeannine. I needed her to be a real character in the movie's first half, not just its second. But what I may be saying is that I wanted “Zipper” to really be Jeannie's story, which is obviously isn't supposed to be, because then I'd be saying that the perfect version of “Zipper” is basically “The Good Wife,” when what I'm saying is that the perfect version of “Zipper” is one that doesn't become a caricature of addiction.

There are a number of other fine actors looking for a bit more to do in “Zipper.” Richard Dreyfuss gets to have a little cynical fun as the wily wheeler-dealer, but there's a whole middle of the movie in which the character doesn't notice that his perfect candidate has become a twitching mess of hooker-lust, which makes him look much less wily. John Cho and Christopher McDonald were apparently nearby and happy to pick up paychecks. Dianna Agron will looking to age-up for a role, without a big commitment. 

I'd say the most interesting deep supporting performance comes from Penelope Mitchell, who I've never liked on “Vampire Diaries,” but she generates some  sexy sympathy as one of Sam's escorts. I'd have guessed Mitchell was headed for a career of CW roles — Not that there's anything wrong with that — but there's an off-chance this will get her some attention.

Long-term, “Zipper” is in a difficult place. The first 40 minutes and the last 20 minutes aren't bad, but they're not remarkable enough for me to tell you they're worth ignoring the “Hooker Madness” segment for. And the “Hooker Madness” segment, while mighty amusing, is buried in a movie too long to reward viewing for camp alone. The movie was neither bad enough for my “Broken 'Zipper' has no teeth” headline, nor good enough for my “Viewers should rush to pull down this 'Zipper.'”

Oh well.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Misery Loves Comedy”
“People, Places, Things”
“Digging For Fire”
“Prophet's Prey”
“The Wolfpack”
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”