“Zipper” is a borderline unmarketable anomaly that exists right in the middle of two completely separate narrative approaches. Get rid of the swearing and the graphic sex scenes, add a Christian element to the protagonist, and you got yourself one of those faith-based morality tales about how much sex addiction and the man of the house cavorting with prostitutes can destroy lives and demolish the core concept of the nuclear family. Or, leave the moralizing behind; embrace the sleaze factor of the stylized story about a good-looking politician hooking up with a series of expensive escorts and we end up with one of those ’90s-style erotic thrillers that straddle the fine line between classy erotica and soft-core porn. In this form, “Zipper” ends up as a competently executed but muddled experience, a cinematic oddity that wants to preach as much as it feels the need to titillate.
“Zipper” tells the cautionary tale of Sam (Patrick Wilson), a successful prosecutor rapidly rising in the world of politics in order to hopefully someday become a senator. Sam has a loving and supporting wife, Jeannie (Lena Headey), as well as a lovely and affluent family life. But Sam has one big and admittedly universal problem: he loves the ladies. Bored of masturbating to online porn, he contacts an escort service in order to cheat on his wife with a high-class prostitute.
I have to give props to co-writer and director Mora Stephens and co-writer and Joel Viertel for doing their homework on how interactions between married men and escorts take place. When morality tales are told from a faith-based perspective, the people who produce those films generally ignore how adult entertainment and sex work exists in the real world because they find the subject of sex to be super icky-yucky, and we usually end up with ridiculous depictions of porn and prostitution. For some belly laughs, check out how online porn is depicted in the Kirk Cameron masterpiece “Fireproof”.
The long sequence that depicts Sam’s first experience with an insanely hot escort (Alexandra Breckinridge) rings true from beginning to end. Sam’s inner conflict between excitement and unease, the escort’s ambiguously friendly and breezy personal approach, as well as the clashing body language of the whole affair feels as realistic as possible. The ensuing sex scene, as graphic as it may be, is necessary to show why men seek such wonton physical release as an escape from their humdrum existence. In fact, none of the frank depictions of sex in “Zipper” are ever really gratuitous, and they all add something to the narrative.
A sex scene between Sam and Jeannie might look like it comes out of nowhere, but it deftly communicates Sam’s need for casual domination over a woman, since Jeannie appears to have complete control over how the couple consummates their marriage. The sequence intelligently answers why Sam would risk destroying an otherwise happy marriage: sometimes the motivation is as simple as a need for variety, and the male libido really might work in such brute and senseless ways. A perfect one word answer by Sam after Jeannie asks him what he found in the other women sums up the hypothesis that more often than not we might need to forego a deep psychological analysis regarding motivation for infidelity and put our faith in Occam’s razor.
The best scene depicting sex is the one that will probably be met with the most ridicule from audiences because of its seemingly atonal placement in the film: After tracking down one of the escorts he previously hooked up with in order to ask her about an ongoing FBI investigation, Sam first has a heartfelt conversation with the escort about both of their mothers succumbing to cancer, acknowledging the escort as a human being, then proceeds to have sex with her for all the cash in his pocket, demolishing all the good will the scene set up for him up until that point.
At first, Sam’s rash decision looks like it comes completely out of left field, and is inserted into the story to pump the otherwise sexless third act with some skin, but addictive behavior resurfaces in the strongest fashion during times of high stress and confusion. I’m sure Stephens and Viertel are perfectly aware of the irony of their protagonist trying to ease the stress of his love of prostitutes possibly becoming public knowledge by sleeping with a prostitute.
So, if the sex stuff works and is handled in a mature and insightful way, what’s wrong with “Zipper”? Pretty much everything else, unfortunately. First of all, if the story’s strength is in the way it handles the subjects of infidelity and sex addiction, why not construct a levelheaded drama about a middle-class everyman who struggles with such temptations, like a version of Steve McQueen’s underrated “Shame,” but one that throws marriage into the equation? Why drench the film in a glossy style reminiscent of an FX show from a decade ago, with an attractive lead, and naval gazing on the rich and boring? Every time “Zipper” cuts to any scene depicting the sub-plot surrounding Sam’s burgeoning political career, the film’s otherwise decent pacing screeches to a halt and we’re left with the dullness of a network TV legal drama.
And then there’s the didactic moralizing and preachy on-the-nose monologues, enough to fill three Tyler Perry movies. A detective’s speech to Sam about always being a real man under the eyes of God is embarrassing, and a monologue delivered by a senator played by Richard Dreyfuss is so clunky, that he might as well have broken the fourth wall in order to make sure the audience understood that his speech was supposed to represent the a major theme in the story.
If an editor gets their hands on the raw footage of “Zipper,” I’m pretty sure three completely different films for three completely different markets could be produced. A dull cautionary tale that judges its characters’ immoral actions, an empty-headed but scintillating erotic thriller, or a sensible and objective study on infidelity and sex addiction. I would have preferred the third option, but there isn’t enough of it for me to give “Zipper” a wholehearted recommendation. The second option could work as a midnight guilty pleasure. The first option can go to hell. [C]