For much of his career, Patrick Wilson has wielded his hunky good looks with an intriguing ambivalence. In movies like Little Children and Watchmen—or his guest spot on Girls—the 42-year-old actor has played stereotypically handsome, all-American characters, but there’s always something a bit off about these men, as if their perfect features are a warning to watch out for the emptiness or flaw underneath. He could spend the rest of his life playing politicians with their mixture of telegenic charm and dispiriting superficiality, but that might almost be too easy: He fits the role uncomfortably well.
The gravest weakness of the character study Zipper is that it’s never smarter than in its casting of Wilson, who portrays an ambitious, virtuous married federal prosecutor whose seeking of higher office gets endangered by an unexpected addiction to high-class call girls. Wilson has the effortless ability to show both sides of the man’s personality—the chiseled good guy and the debilitating lack of self-control—but it’s in service to a movie that’s neither very astute about the worlds it observes nor sufficiently compelling in the story it tells. Even worse, Zipper ends up making Wilson look pretty silly through little fault of his own.
Directed and co-written by Mora Stephens (Conventioneers), the film introduces us to Sam Ellis (Wilson), who loves going after the corrupt in power, practically taking it personally that these men would abuse their vaunted position. Zipper demonstrates Sam’s good moral character early on by placing an alluring, willing young intern (Dianna Agron) in his path, but even though she kisses him one drunken night, he politely demurs, telling her that it’ll have to stop there.
But the seeds of Sam’s destruction are already starting to be sown. His office is investigating a case involving an escort service. Almost despite himself, he calls the service, arranges a hotel meeting with one of the women. It’s something he’s never done before, and even as it’s happening, he’s not quite sure why he is or if he’ll go through with it. But soon, Sam gets a taste for these clandestine trysts. That’s bad enough considering that he has a great wife (Lena Headey) and family, but a crafty political operative (Richard Dreyfuss) thinks Sam would make a dynamite congressional candidate, convincing him to begin an election campaign built around his above-reproach persona.
There are a few themes swimming around in Zipper: how the venality of politics isn’t that different than prostitution; how easy it is for any of us to be brought down by an uncontrollable addiction; the difference between the face we show the world and the secret life we carry around with us. These are all worthwhile topics, but Stephens hasn’t hit upon particularly satisfying ways to explore any of them.
While it’s a relief that Zipper doesn’t become one of those hacky political thrillers in which Sam’s growing obsession with escorts is being orchestrated by unseen enemies trying to bring him down—the man’s downfall is entirely his own fault—Stephens and Wilson never do a great job unearthing what’s going on within Sam, or what draws him to such self-destructive behavior. For all of Wilson’s knack for portraying handsome shells, Sam is merely one more good-looking politician, the character’s shock at his own helplessness to resist these trysts a riddle that stays underdeveloped. When Stephens attempts to shed light on Sam’s inner demons, the best she can come up with is filming her star in the midst of his addiction through jarring, woozy close-ups and jittery jump-cut editing as if he was about to transform into the Wolfman at any moment.
Since Zipper lacks insight into the roots of sexual addiction, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Sam’s increasingly self-destructive tendencies. And as Sam gets perilously close to being found out by the authorities—and by a journalist friend of his wife, Nigel Coaker (Ray Winstone), who’s been tapped to write a glowing profile of the candidate—the film also doesn’t generate much grim suspense from our sense that the net is inextricably closing in on him. Near the finale, it becomes painfully clear Zipper is navigating its way toward an “ironic” ending that’s meant to be a condemnation of our political system, but the impact is negligible. The fate of a dull enigma doesn’t have much weight.
Director: Mora Stephens
Writers: Mora Stephens, Joel Viertel
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Lena Headey, Richard Dreyfuss, Ray Winstone, John Cho, Dianna Agron
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.