The title ZIPPER suggests something wittier and more enticing than Mora Stephens’ well-made melodrama turns out to be. If a filmmaker is determined to reexamine the familiar story of a politician who can’t control his own personal excesses, some kind of new take or distinctive angle is advisable, but Stephens and her co-writer Joel Viertel don’t really have one. It makes for a drama more polished than compelling.
The politician here is Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson), a smoothly ambitious South Carolina prosecutor who’s been grooming himself for years, with the help of wife Jeannie (Lena Headey), for higher office. His opportunity finally arises, courtesy of canny political advisor George Hiller (Richard Dreyfuss), but at the same time, the first in his long and seemingly happy marriage, Sam finds himself drawn to other women. After walking away from an eager office intern (Dianna Agron), he channels his desires into assignations with the women of a high-end call girl ring. He keeps these “dates” as compartmentalized and anonymous as possible, but of course eventually a piper has to be paid.
This is only the second feature film for Stephens (the first was 10 years ago), and she does a lot of things right. The casting is first-rate. Wilson is a perfect embodiment of charisma and arrogance, able to convey both impeccable control and increasing imbalance. Penelope Mitchell has some powerful scenes as one of the women Sam sees, and Ray Winestone is choice as a powerful journalist whose attention to Sam’s potential is a double-edged sword. Stephens and Viertel have written a particular amount of depth into the character of Jeannie, and in Headey they have an actress who can realize all of thse levels.
But of course a supporting character in a 2 hour movie can’t begin to suggest the layers that have been explored for 6 wondrous seasons of The Good Wife about a character that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeannie, and that’s Zipper‘s problem. We’ve seen too many of these politicians before, both in real life and ficton, and Stephens doesn’t have much in the way of fresh insight into their self-destructive, uncontrollable behavior. Nor does she present the story with a stylistic viewpoint or thesis that would make it stand out. (The movie’s epilogue makes one consider the possibility that she ended her script just when it was about to become interesting.) It’s a slick, absorbing piece of work, with a sharp sense of pace, but nothing sets it apart.
The movie fates are fairly brutal at Sundance: every year there are a few films that shine, not just selling to distributors but making or burnishing reputations (last year’s were Oscar nominees Boyhood and Whiplash), while most of the rest are headed for VOD. Zipper, as accomplished as it is, isn’t suited for the top of the ticket.