Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker

MPAA Rating:  (for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 11/12/04 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The one thing that's always thrown me off about Alfred Kinsey's revolutionary sex research was that it was done by a Hoosier. I mean, Indiana is a sexier state than, say, North Dakota, but it still isn't one that immediately comes to mind when you think about all things sexual. Kinsey, Bill Condon's biopic of the zoologist who turned American perception on what people do in their private sexual lives upside-down, portrays a man whose motives are mixed. Innocently, he wants to be able to satisfy his wife; more selfishly, he wants to excise his own personal demons. The result is a man obsessed with research to the point that he eliminates all of the humanity from his perspective on sex. The film does an outstanding job developing this angle on Kinsey's personal story but at the expense of practically every other element of the man it touches. Yet Kinsey has the benefit of Liam Neeson's highly nuanced performance as Kinsey, which helps to fill in many of the blanks and develop what we're presented in detail with a level of complexity.

The film starts with a young Kinsey growing up under the eye of his father (John Lithgow), a rigid man of high moral and religious pomposity. We see him as an Eagle Scout, apparently living up to the expectations of his father's world. He grows up to go on to study biology and psychology, much against his father's wishes, and eventually goes on to study gall wasps for the way each generation differs from the last—a trait he hopes is true of human beings as well. Soon, he teaches biology at Indiana University and meets and weds a student of his named Clara (Laura Linney). On their wedding night, both are virgins, and after a disastrous first attempt at consummating their relationship, the Kinseys visit a doctor. The appointment is so successful that Kinsey comes to realize that sex is a field that has been all but ignored, and his reputation of having even basic knowledge of the subject at the university causes him to be quite popular. The interest leads Kinsey to start a very popular marriage course which frankly discusses sex and eventually a nationwide study of the sexual histories of people of all walks of life.

The tone of the first part of the film ventures into the realm of sex comedy, whether it be Clara's befuddlement at the inability of a ruler to measure her husband's "stature" or the expression of shock and amusement students show at a series of photographs showing an up-close look at intercourse (how these passed the MPAA untouched is surprising but encouraging; maybe they aren't as prudish as we thought). It seems an appropriate way to ease us into a discussion of things many are still uncomfortable about seriously discussing in such extensive detail. And detail is something the film certainly isn't lacking. Kinsey is blunt about his advice, and his eventual questionnaire leaves little to the imagination. From this jumping-off point, Condon moves into far more serious terrain. Kinsey's passion for his subject leads him to discover things about himself, including his desire to engage in a relationship with Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), one of his fellow researchers. This hands-on approach to study is encouraged among the rest of the team (including Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton), and although Kinsey himself is able to distance himself from the research, the same is not always true for them.

This disparity sets Kinsey apart from the rest of his team and heightens our understanding of his character, but it leaves many questions open about the other players. We see Clyde become jealous of his partner's extramarital relationship with his wife, but instead of developing this point further, Condon dismisses it, seemingly only for a moment of conflict. Also kept from development is a scene in which Kinsey confronts a man who has recorded to memory and paper all of his past sexual activity. The scene starts amusingly, as he shows off a very unique talent, and grows more and more uncomfortable until we realize he's a sexual predator. Kinsey's scientific intentions keep him from responding negatively (his partner does leave the interview) or contacting the authorities, but it simply leaves us unsettled. Even though Kinsey's research pointed people in the direction of tolerance, this brings us to an extreme. On the other end, though, is a poignant scene when Kinsey confronts his father and asks for his sexual history. What results makes us realize the importance of Kinsey's work, and Neeson's performance reminds us briefly again of the man's humanity, as much as he wants to deny it for his work.

And perhaps the man himself is what keeps Kinsey from exploring a fundamental query: By eliminating humanity from the equation and placing human beings on the same playing field as animals, is he taking into account the full picture? Wisely, Condon never condemns nor endorses Kinsey's viewpoint, however, a middle ground between his father's stricture and his nihilism must exist. The film leaves it for us to debate, and instead, Condon weaves Kinsey's story into an allegory of tolerance. Citing the "moral" upswing of the recent elections as evidence, the progress made since the 1948 publication of the Kinsey Institute's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male seems relatively minor, and that's a sad state of affairs.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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