Kinsey Movie Review
Writer-director Bill Condon has a talent for hitting just the right tone in his work. Whether he's paying stylistic homage to "Bride of Frankenstein" creator James Whale in "Gods and Monsters" or writing a screenplay for "Chicago" that re-envisioned the Broadway musical as a wannabe showgirl's uniquely cinematic daydream, Condon always finds a way to seamlessly marry the crux of his story to the strengths of his medium.
In "Kinsey," he legitimizes and revitalizes a rather tiresome narrative gimmick -- on-camera interviews with the characters. For a biopic about legendary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, there could be no more apropos structure for the story. Kinsey himself interviewed thousands of Americans about their bedroom predilections in the 1940s and '50s to compile his groundbreaking, rather comprehensive and certainly controversial studies on the subject. So Condon opens the film in kind -- with a simple, head-on, black-and-white image of the bluntly matter-of-fact and obliviously awkward Professor Kinsey (Liam Neeson) being quizzed about his own background and sexual experience.
Composing the film around Kinsey's answers, Condon cues flashbacks of an upbringing under the fire-and-brimstone hand of a preacher father (John Lithgow), introduces the equally clinical-yet-passionate student who becomes his wife (Laura Linney), touches on the man's own pseudo-scientific dalliances and their promiscuous effect on his marriage, and sets the stage for the studies that helped launch the sexual revolution.
Condon is blessed with a top-notch cast that gives its all, including the instinctual Peter Sarsgaard ("Garden State," "Shattered Glass") as Kinsey's bisexual right-hand student researcher, Tim Curry as an uptight rival professor who fuels Kinsey's frustration with "morality disguised as facts" (how deliciously ironic the actor's career began as "Rocky Horror's" "sweet transvestite") and Oliver Platt as Indiana University President Herman Wells, whose light-heartedness and unwavering support buoys Kinsey through McCarthyian scrutiny and public condemnation.
But the film is driven by the flawless, fearless, insightful and intuitive performances of Neeson and Linney. Decked out in a trademark crooked bow tie and do-it-yourself haircut, Neeson finds a maladroit charm buried in Kinsey's stiff formality and social ineptitude, which begets blustery discourses on how his music LPs are organized and party-halting small-talk like this earnest proclamation at a university fundraiser: "There's plenty of time to take your sex histories before dinner. Who would like to go first?"
The incomparably unaffected Linney (equally sublime in a sexier role in last month's "P.S.") matches Neeson erudite dorkism for erudite dorkism as the self-possessed Clara McMillen (affectionately known as "Mac"), who takes charge of their relationship. She proposes marriage by pointing out how logical their pairing is, reasons through their ungainly mutual loss of virginity on their wedding night, and becomes an emotional foil to Kinsey's clinical approach to open sexuality.
Oscar nominations all around, I say (even if both of them are too old to be credible in brief early scenes of their college years).
Unfortunately, while the film turns the aforementioned interview cliché into an asset, Condon does from time to time fall back on pedestrian staples of the biopic genre, like the fact that Kinsey's horribly judgmental father (a stark icon of the resistance his work met) comes to accept his son's choices late in the film -- and just in time for an unlikely moment of bonding and healing. Condon is also clumsy with a metaphor. He cuts inexplicably and almost randomly to stock-footage nature shots, and flogs one scene from Kinsey's Boy-Scout teens for all the unspoken homoerotic innuendo he can muster.
In his attempt to capture Kinsey the man, the director also fails to adequately explore the results of all Kinsey's work. His books "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953) are plot points, as are the uproar surrounding their publication and the hardships and harassment (both social and governmental) that Kinsey suffered as a result. But if you want an inkling of their actual contents, you'll have to hit the library yourself.
Condon does not, however, shy away from the unsavory -- like pedophiles and rapists Kinsey encountered in his studies -- or legitimate questions about some of his methodology (including "direct observation," nudge-nudge, wink-wink). Nor does he pull punches on Kinsey's own sex life -- Neeson has fervent scenes with both Linney and Sarsgaard (who also have a sex scene between them) -- and the picture is the better for it.
Condon saves his best writing and directing for last, however, as "Kinsey" has a knockout epilogue that drives home the impact and import of its subject's work on a poignant and personal level.