Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker and Lynn Redgrave
Reviewed by: A. O. Scott, New York Times
Opens: Today, January 13
"Kinsey," Bill Condon's smart, stirring life of the renowned mid-century sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, has a lot to say on the subject of sex, which it treats with sobriety, sensitivity and a welcome measure of humor. Condon, who parsed the riddles of erotic desire in his earlier film "Gods and Monsters," regards the humid matters of the flesh with a dry, sympathetic intelligence. What really turns him on, though - or at any rate what makes his new movie's heart beat faster - is science.
The director addresses sexuality with candor and wit, but it is the act of research as much as its object that imparts to "Kinsey" its flush of passion and its rush of romance. I can't think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused.
Which is, of course, its own form of pleasure, one all too rarely granted by film biographies of the famous and the great. Unlike written lives, which thrive on endless expansion and documentation, biopics must compress and shape the messy narrative of actual life into three acts and two hours, and the conventions of the genre have the effect of eroding the very individuality they mean to celebrate, constructing smooth, nearly interchangeable stories of trauma and triumph out of the knotty particulars of public life and personal history. "Kinsey" does not entirely escape from these conventions, and includes a few scenes in which its protagonist's character is explained rather than embodied.
There is, for example, a dinner table scene midway through in which Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is clearly treating his son with the same imperious lack of sympathy that his own father (John Lithgow) inflicted on him. We get the point, but just in case we missed it, Mrs. Kinsey (Laura Linney) steps in to berate her husband. "Have you learned nothing?" she demands. "Nothing?"
In spite of a few heavy-handed moments like that one, "Kinsey" is remarkably adept in showing us just how much Kinsey did learn, and how much we can and did learn from him. Depending on your view of current mores, he was either a Promethean figure, liberating Americans from ignorance, superstition and hypocrisy, or a Pandora opening up a box of permissiveness and perversion. Condon clearly takes the first view, and he argues the case for Kinsey's contribution to sexual knowledge and social health without ignoring the more troubling aspects of his life and legacy.
But his Kinsey - whose hobbies include gardening and classical music, and who is rarely without his trademark bow tie - is also, charmingly, a nerd. "You're a lot more square than I thought you'd be," says one of his research subjects, and the future Mrs. Kinsey finds him a little "churchy." Kinsey, a zoologist specializing in the taxonomy of gall wasps, came late to sex, as both an intellectual and a physical pursuit. As the movie tells it, his fieldwork, collecting hundreds of thousands of wasp specimens, offered an escape from a sickly, unhappy childhood and from his bullying, puritanical father, a professor at the Stevens Institute in Hoboken and a Methodist lay preacher first shown inveighing against such sinful modern inventions as the combustion engine, the electric light and the zipper. "Lust has a thousand avenues," he rails.
His son, an inveterate quantifier, would later conclude that this estimate was much too low, and he set out, with impressive empirical zeal, to explore every avenue he could. Kinsey's method was both simple and elaborate: he would interview as many people as he could, gathering their "sex histories" and tabulating these into a multi-volume work intended to provide basic, comprehensive information about sexual behavior.
In the movie's account, he arrived at this project more or less by accident. His marriage, to Clara McMillen (known as Mac), begins with some sexual awkwardness that is cured by practical information, and before long Professor Kinsey (nicknamed Prok) is dispensing advice to perplexed undergraduates at Indiana University. Their official instruction in matters of eros comes in a hygiene course taught by a priggish professor played with nearly indecent relish by Tim Curry. The misinformation that was perpetrated in the name of science is perhaps the most shocking thing in the movie, and the fact that we are shocked by it is a measure of how radical and sweeping Kinsey's work was.
That work and its consequences, both public and intimate, are at the heart of "Kinsey," and Condon's great achievement is to turn Kinsey's complicated and controversial career into a grand intellectual drama. Almost in passing, the film illuminates the intricacies of postwar academic and philanthropic politics, as Kinsey must assuage a nervous university president (Oliver Platt) and make nice with a skittish program officer from the Rockefeller Foundation (Dylan Baker). Condon also examines the curious dynamics of Kinsey's inner circle of research assistants (Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell and Peter Sarsgaard), whose own marriages became part of Kinsey's research.
As did Kinsey's own. The greatest risk the movie takes is in attempting to deal frankly with its hero's own sex life without succumbing to prurience or easy moralism. Sometimes his scientific zeal shaded into obsession, and his methods went from the empirical to the experimental in ways that remain ethically troubling. "Is there a Mrs. Kinsey?" wondered a scandalized matron in a famous magazine cartoon published in the wake of the best-selling "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." "Kinsey," in supplying an answer, presses deeper into the mysteries of marital loyalty than its main character was able to go.
Mac - loyal helpmeet, fellow scientist, willing participant in carefully planned, scientifically motivated acts of adultery - seems like an impossible character to play, but Linney meets the challenge with forthrightness, delicacy and a brisk sense of mischief. She and Sarsgaard, whose ability to underact becomes more thrilling with each new role, bring Neeson's faultless performance into high relief. Their characters, less monomaniacal and more adaptable than Kinsey, love him in spite of his lapses and limitations, and through them the audience does, too.
And "Kinsey" is, evidently, a labor of love - not uncritical or hagiographic, and certainly not blind to the real Kinsey's misjudgments and failings, but nonetheless marked by fond and grateful admiration. This is expressed most directly late in the film, when an interview subject (Lynn Redgrave) offers a spontaneous testimonial to her interlocutor, thanking him for saving her life. The moment unfolds without hyperbole or melodrama because the rest of the film has anticipated it.
Speaking to a roomful of students (including Mac, before she was Mrs. Kinsey) about his beloved gall wasps, Prok celebrates the creatures' extraordinary diversity. "Only variations are real," he says, an insight that informed his later research and that gives "Kinsey" its deepest moral.
In undertaking his sex research, Kinsey set out to document what was normal, and discovered a universe of variation. In publishing his findings, he horrified some readers and titillated others, but the implications of his work, as presented in this humane and serious film, go far beyond mammalian physiology or human behavior. Each of us is different, and none of us is alone.