4 Stars
Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
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A biopic devoted to the life of a scientist who spent much of his career cataloguing gall wasps wouldn’t seem like a formula for an engaging film. But when that biopic is “Kinsey,” based on the life of one-time entomologist Alfred Kinsey and his revolutionary work in the field of the human sexual experience, you can rest assured you’ll be extremely interested in the final product.

And not just because there’s lots of full frontal nudity.

Our introduction to Kinsey (Liam Neeson) comes as he instructs his assistants in proper interviewing technique, right before they’re about to embark on their landmark research project. Through flashbacks, we learn of his strict religious upbringing at the hands of his deeply devout father (played by John Lithgow, channeling “Footloose’s” Reverend Moore), his early love of biology, and his awkwardness dealing with questions of sex and intimacy. Like many at the time (the 1920s), Kinsey had no concept of sex outside of the standard trifecta of marriage-intercourse-children, so it’s a big step when the virgin Kinsey and his equally inexperienced new wife Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) are forced to seek advice due to problems posed by Alfred’s extremely large penis. After some judicious surgery, the newly happy couple realizes what they’ve been missing and gleefully experiment their way to producing three children, while Alfred furthers his successful, if dull, career at Indiana University.

Time marches on, and several students begin seeking Kinsey’s advice on “relationship matters.” Seeing an opportunity, and chafing at the sexual ignorance of young people subjected to wildly inaccurate information, he begins teaching a marriage course. The class is wildly popular (in no small part because it’s only counterpart at the school is a hygiene class that instructs students to play mental games to distract themselves from their throbbing biological urges), and it soon dawns upon Kinsey that he lacks the answers to many of his students’ more interesting questions.

The solution is simple: begin an exhaustive survey of the human sexual experience, relying on case histories from thousands upon thousands of volunteers. After securing funding (only upon assuring his backers he’ll make no subjective commentary) and a staff, Kinsey embarks on his epic project. The rest, as they say, is hot, sexy action.

Okay, not quite. Written and directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), “Kinsey” is much more than a series of clips involving embarrassed subjects spilling their intimate secrets (although that makes for several immensely funny scenes). The movie is as much about inhibition and the effects of “morality disguised as fact” as it is about sex. Kinsey faces moral resistance at the outset, from his father as well as his fellow IU faculty members, and by the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Male is released, he’s been labeled a smut peddler and targeted by J. Edgar Hoover himself (a man who could’ve used a little sexual counseling of his own).

Tensions also surface within Kinsey’s own assistants, whose libidinous lifestyles threaten personal relationships and give lie to the good doctor’s assertion that sex can be disassociated from emotion.

As a biography, “Kinsey” doesn’t stray far from the usual conventions. Rather, it is Condon’s adroit handling of the subject matter and the caliber of performances within that carry it above the norm. Neeson gives one of his best performances and is – you’ll forgive the _expression – as loose as he’s ever been in a role, while Linney turns in another effortless performance. However, it’s Peter Sarsgaard who really shines as Kinsey’s top assistant who has…unusual ties to the doctor’s family. The smaller roles are also handled well, from Oliver Platt as the university president to Tim Curry, playing against type as the stuffy hygiene instructor. There are also some memorable cameos from William Sadler and Lynn Redgrave.

In spite of the drama of the film’s second half, “Kinsey” is really quite humorous, with most of the laughs resulting from our sophisticated 21st century reaction to the prudish mores of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Make no mistake, though; Condon is issuing a statement about today’s chilly moral climate and the continued stifling of science by the “forces of chastity.” Compare the scene where Kinsey’s students discuss whether or not oral sex can hinder pregnancy with modern-day textbooks that propose creation as science and decreased government funding for needed medical research.

Not quite so funny now, is it?

Posted on November 22, 2004 in Reviews by

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