Early into Zipper, Sam (Patrick Wilson), a high-profile, South Carolina federal prosecutor, is flatly told by his boss that “no one cares about human frailty.” But Sam does. He’s in the midst of considering a run for political office, but for the moment empathizes with a star witness in an upcoming case; she’s an escort for a service under investigation for soliciting sex to politicians and wealthy businessmen. “I save the lowlifes for my personal life,” she tells him. Director Mora Stephens, along with co-writer Joe Viertel, soon makes Sam the latest misbehaved politician, crossing from the comforts of family life with his wife, Jeannie (Lena Headey), and delving into an underworld of prepaid cellphones, nylon stockings, and expensive hotel rooms, where he arranges meetings with various call girls from a service much like the one he’s investigating.
Stephens’s sporadically distinguished take on middle-aged lust casts Sam as a hypocritical softie, who tells each woman he frequents that they’re “better than this” while dissociating himself as an active, perpetuating participant. These are tantalizing feelers, but Zipper conventionalizes deceit by failing to truly put Sam through the ringer. Neither able to stylize the proceedings to challenge standard notions of on-screen sex, nor provide a compelling justification for Sam’s plight aside from its vague Eliot Spitzer parallels, the film is content to have characters speak ominous lines regarding ethics and desire without actually locating them within the course of its own narrative.
Stephens is keen on montages of bras being removed and flashes of differing sexual positions as evidence of Sam’s descent into sex addiction, rather than offering sustained passages that unearth individuated reasoning or passions driving Sam’s sudden immersion into a world he previously knew nothing of. In fact, Sam is so much of a square at the start that he cautiously treks onto escort-service websites, as if visiting a prostitute never even occurred to him prior. Accordingly, his quick-pulsed descent lacks immediacy beyond the inevitable onslaught of consequences once Sam’s secret becomes apparent to his wife and draws the suspicions of a news reporter (Ray Winstone).
Zipper wants for a keener vision of corrupted power, but at least Stephens navigates Sam’s sudden slew of infidelities without banalizing them. When Jeannie asks what the escorts have that she doesn’t, Sam is only able to muster a simple “nothing,” and Wilson convincingly plays the assertion with a mix of regret and apathy. Perhaps he really doesn’t know why he cheated, but Stephens doesn’t let him off the hook for it either. As George (Richard Dreyfuss), an influential campaign adviser, appears near the end of the film and lets Sam know that he’s aware of his “zipper problem,” he places a large donation on the table, from interested sponsors. When Sam takes the envelope and inspects it, registering his acceptance of these under-the-table funds as the identical form of transaction he’s been conducting for the last few months, it’s meant to be an “a ha!” moment of full-circle recognition; instead, it registers as a “well, of course” resolution to a film that is, in part, better than this.