'Zipper': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A flaccid scandal movie that makes illicit sex a yawn

Patrick Wilson plays an ascending political star who gets caught with his Canali suit pants down in a messy collision of power and prostitution.

The fallout from the sexual transgressions that unfold behind America's corridors of power has provided juicy fodder for a lot of excellent television, The Good Wife and House of Cards at the top of the list. So it takes a film with sharper teeth than Zipper to expand the conversation about our endless capacity to be shocked by flawed leaders. Director Mora Stephens ponders (or purports to) what drives men in high office to risk their personal and professional reputations for expensive extramarital recreation. But she gives Patrick Wilson nothing but a sleek shell to play, so it's hard to get too worked up about his character's unraveling.

Stephens and co-writer Joel Viertel have dabbled in politics and passion before, in the director's low-budget 2005 debut Conventioneers. It's taken a decade to cook up this glossy sophomore effort, and in that time tabloid ink has flowed like Niagara Falls with the public shaming of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and their ilk. Yet there's neither topicality nor bite in this bland pseudo-thriller, which lathers on composer H. Scott Salinas' high-suspense score like shower gel after sweaty sex, yet rarely musters an ounce of genuine tension.

Wilson plays Sam Ellis, a talented federal prosecutor whom we first encounter weeding out corruption in the mayor's office of an unnamed Southern city in a highly publicized court case. (The film was shot in Louisiana but appears to be set in South Carolina.) At the victory drinks afterwards, happily married Sam narrowly resists the aggressive advances of an attractive law school intern (Dianna Agron). But sex is on his mind when he meets a former high-end hooker (Elena Satine) while working an identity theft case. It's also probably on his browser history if his wife Jeannie (Lena Headey) — a supposedly even sharper lawyer than Sam before she put her career on hold — ever thought to check.

Anyhow, while Jeannie and others close to Sam are urging him to seize the spotlight and throw his hat into the political ring, he's busy sampling the services of a company called Executive Privilege. He's careful to cover his tracks at first, but as he starts working his way through the entire escort roster, he gets more desperate and sloppy, making Jeannie suspicious.

For anyone who recalls the steam rising from the skin of Wilson and Kate Winslet as they went at it on top of a washing machine in 2006's Little Children, it's hard to believe how drearily unsexy Stephens has managed to make Sam's serial hotel romps. At $1000 an hour, one hopes he's getting more out of it than the audience. But what's most disturbing is the complete absence of psychological weight in his spiraling obsession, which becomes faintly risible when he ignores the signs of encroaching disaster and goes speeding across town to a rendezvous with the agency's seldom-available top escort.

While all this is going on, D.C. strategist George Heller (Richard Dreyfuss) has set Sam's political future in motion, and Jeannie has used her connections to get him profiled by influential journalist Nigel Coaker (Ray Winstone). Having a gravelly Brit with the world-weariness of Winstone get all morally indignant about the hypocrisy he uncovers is just one example of poor casting and character choices.

When Jeannie is confronted with the full extent of Sam's sins, her reactions go from predictable (why do wronged wives so often take it out on their husbands' luxury cars?) to absurd as she refuses to veer from the political game plan.

Dreyfuss brings a twinkly-eyed sense of fun to Heller's big speech about America's naive need to believe that its heroes are squeaky-clean. But while this is obviously meant to leave us aghast at the institutionalized cynicism, by that point, it's merely banal. Unlike, say, Arbitrage, a more enjoyably sleazy movie about the duplicity of power, Zipper seems convinced it's sharing startling insights. Does the revelation that all kinds of prostitution exists in politics even warrant a news flash these days?

Casting the wholesomely handsome Wilson might have made sense on paper, but he remains wan and unpersuasive as a man wrestling with his demons. And though Headey gets to spit some justified venom toward the end, both Sam and Jeannie are lacking in any distinguishing characteristics beyond the standard-issue poise of the rich and successful. If part of Stephens' point was to show the human frailty behind the scandal, she and Viertel maybe should have spent some time drawing characters we could care about.

Production company: Protozoa Pictures, 33 Pictures, in association with Hyphenate Films

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Lena Headey, Ray Winstone, Richard Dreyfuss, John Cho, Dianna Agron, Christopher McDonald, Alexandra Breckenridge, Penelope Mitchell, Elena Satine

Director: Mora Stephens

Screenwriters: Mora Stephens, Joel Viertel

Producers: R. Bryan Wright, Amy Mitchell-Smith, Mark Heyman, Joel Viertel, Marina Grasic

Executive producers: Scott Frankel, Ari Handel, Darren Aronofsky, Danya Duffy, Jan Korbelin, Beau Chaney, Christian Oliver

Director of photography: Antonio Calvache

Production designer: Hannah Beachler

Costume designer: Shauna Leone

Music: H. Scott Salinas

Editor: Joel Viertel

Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Sales: CAA/Cinetic

No rating, 112 minutes.