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Kinsey

Reviewed By Tom Ciorciari
Posted 01/29/05 07:43:50

"The many unanswered questions of sex."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The subject of sexuality in films has always been a thorny one. From Louise Brooks' tragic prostitute Lulu in “Pandora's Box” to Reneé Zellweger's manipulative Roxie in “Chicago”, sex has always been most-easily portrayed as an evil, albeit, pleasurable vice. Stereotypes are the norm here. Women use sex to get what they want; men, quite simply, lust. Homosexuality is kept safely at arms length in independent films, and the genuinely deviant is used to personify the horrible (“The Silence Of The Lambs“), or is tucked away in the darkest of indies (Todd Soldonz’s truly creepy “Happiness”). And now, here comes Bill Condon’s “Kinsey”, a biopic about Professor Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), the man who brought human sexuality into the open in the late 1940s and early 1950s via his two incendiary books, “Sexual behavior In The Human Male” and its follow-up “Sexual behavior In The Human Female”.

Condon, who knows a thing or two about the genre (1998's brilliant Gods And Monsters), has created a compelling film biography of this brilliant, though intrinsically flawed, man. Cowed by his pious minister father (John Lithgow), Kinsey rebels by taking the path most diametrically opposed to that fire-and-brimstone speechifying, as a Harvard-educated zoologist, collecting (with an obsessive precision that would make Howard Hughes proud) and studying gall wasps in excess of one million specimens. As a professor at Indiana University he meets and marries Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney) a clever, freethinking student who is the yin to his yang. When a student comes to him with his young wife for advice regarding their sexual issues we have our eureka! moment in a simple punchline: “There’s more than one position?” Realizing that there is no definitive source of accurate information on sex and sexuality, Kinsey assembles a team of able academics (Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton) to interview men and women of all ages and predilections with an eye to creating such reference volumes. No one is left out, not even his elderly father, whom Kinsey interviews during his mother’s wake. Which most clearly brings to light the one essential ingredient missing in the man: (no, not tact... exactly) sensitivity. Throughout the film whether he’s intimately involved with one of his team, or allowing his wife to become intimate with that same member, Prok (as he’s lovingly referred to by all) seems curiously at a distance from the proceedings. Like the million gall wasps he collects early in the film, Kinsey collects sexual ticks and digressions, but with much the same sense of detachment.

In my favorite scene, The Kinseys are enjoying a backyard barbecue during which the topic of conversation, as ever, is sex; the two teenaged daughters obviously reveling in their ability to speak so freely about the subject while lone son Robert fidgets uncomfortably before finally blowing up: “Can’t you talk about anything else?” Unfortunately, once touched upon, the film leaves this particularly interesting thread to wither, never again making mention of the Kinsey children or how they’ve been effected by their father’s newfound notoriety. The film moves on, through the highs of Kinsey’s first publication, and the adulation that was heaped upon him for freeing the male libido, through the lows of his second publication, which brought the wrath of the country down upon him for daring to assert that grandmothers masturbate and teen daughters were engaging in premarital sex.

As Kinsey the man couches the potentially prurient nature of its subject matter in the clinical, so does Kinsey the film. Scenes of Kinsey and his team engaged in hands-on “research” are shown via 16mm black and white films that document the various acts. In one particularly jarring scene he projects extremely graphic slides of both the male and female genitalia – in some cases together – to a class (and I must confess that during this sequence I was momentarily taken out of the film, and made to wonder how in hell Condon was able to avoid an NC-17 rating). That this scene is then followed by one which features a passionate kiss between two men is assuredly no coincidence. In comparison the male-male kiss is positively tame, which was most probably the director’s objective.

Across the board the performances are excellent. Liam Neeson manages to find some shreds of humanity in Alfred Kinsey and gives his richest performance since his Oscar-nominated work in Schindler’s List in 1993. Laura Linney, as always, does wonderful work, fleshing out what might have been a stock wife role and breathing a true sense of unlocked sensuality into the frumpy Mac. And, as he has time and time again, Peter Sarsgaard gives a revelatory performance as the Kinseys' right hand man (both in the classroom and the bedroom) and confidant. And it is his wounded Clyde who has the linchpin line in the film: “Sex is a risky game, because if you’re not careful it will cut you wide open.” In other standout performances are William Sadler as a sexual monster who sees in the clinician a kindred spirit, Oliver Platt as the ever-patient college dean supporting the research, and Lynn Redgrave, in a marvelous cameo, as a woman whose life was changed by the good doctor’s work.

In the end the edicts of the biopic are served, though with less resolution than in Condon’s superior Gods And Monsters. Kinsey leaves us enthralled by the wonderful performances and brilliant craftsmanship of Bill Condon and his crew of filmmakers, yet somehow unsatisfied. In short, I came away from the film never really knowing what went on inside Alfred Kinsey’s head. And maybe that wasn’t the point. But I sure understood what was going on in James Whales’ head in GAM. And while it’s true that sex raises a lot of questions, as Prok claims, a great many of them are left unanswered by Kinsey.

Nevertheless, in a year particularly heavy with biopics Bill Condon's "Kinsey" finds itself among the very best.

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