The Bottom Line
The life of Alfred Kinsey, the man who made sex part of the American conversation, is retold in sharp vignettes, a curious personal examination of the man himself (expertly realized by Liam Neeson), his life, his work, and his impact on sexual mores in the 20th century.
The Rest of the Story
The movie begins with Kinsey's childhood, the son of an overbearing and frigid preacher (John Lithgow, in a necessary but unrewarding role) becoming interested in nature (and young men), which eventually leads him to a biology professorship in Indiana, where he meets his future wife Clara McMillan (the outstandingly brash Laura Linney).
A man of science, his initial curiosity at the lack of sexual statistics and behavioral data available eventually leads him to begin undertaking a study of just such data. At first his collection is modest and fairly pedestrian, but an article in Time magazine makes him an instant celebrity around campus and around America. As his study expands, he witnesses firsthand the blowback of such an endeavor, as academic and professional pressures threaten his work and his career while personal pecadillos threaten his marriage and his family.
Eventually Kinsey's chosen subject and his cavalier disdain for propriety come to a head, and the professor must make some uncomfortable choices, not all of which are good and none of which are easy. Viewed through a lens that has vindicated the man in its eye, the film instead focuses on the personal joys and sorrows that shaped the life of one of the most influential scientists of the modern era.
I think that, in the best interest of you reading this review, that the things that Bill Condon (director and screenwriter for Kinsey) found interesting about the good doctor are the exact same things I find interesting about him, and the way he presents them in his movie are, to me, a delicious and apt serving. This colors my own take on the film significantly, and in fact I think this film in a way may only appeal most strongly to people of my persuasion, which I will now describe. You've been warned.
What makes Kinsey the man so fascinating is that he takes the topic of sex - and in particular the sex taboos of 1948, things like alternate positions, homosexuality, anonymous encounters, and prostitution - and he dries them out, distilling them down into meaningless numbers and data. What this means is that Kinsey becomes a sex addict of a very different kind - a number cruncher. To Condon's Kinsey, the intimacy and ecstacy of sex are secondary to its universality. It is something that can be quantified and known as fact. Thus he becomes like the sports nut who knows every batting average but never visits the stadium. The WoW grinder of sexual activity, if you will. Being a statistics hound myself, this obsession with numbers in lieu of the human side of things is something to marvel.
This plays out wonderfully time and again as Neeson goes into overdrive, taking Kinsey's flattop and bowtie and bloody single-mindedness and using them to crush every audience he gets, both inside and outside the film, with his overriding belief that sex is so natural that it is, in fact, boring. Which may sound ironic now, but for the 1950s can only be described as an impossible dream. Though the movie returns to this gag time and again (and never so much as making Kinsey's first modest pronouncements about sex transform him into a Svengali-like lothario in the eyes of America) it never gets stale, a testament to the script and its central character.
The acting throughout is superb, anchored by Neeson and Linney. Peter Saarsgard steals the first half of the movie as Neeson's first assistant, bearing the weight of the most overtly sexualized role in a film about sex with libertine charm and a flair for the dramatic. Also, how cute is it to have Tim Curry playing the uptight prude? A special shoutout to Lynn Redgrave's cameo, ending the film on a high note with her (fictional but highly personalized) account of how Kinsey's studies had affected her own life.
The movie is beautifully shot, and one of the nicest touches is Condon's connection of Kinsey's innate love of nature to his current research and his life story. Offering several backdrops of rivers, fields, forests, and grass, they reveal the utter naivete and simplicity with which Kinsey approached his primary subject. The film has its randiness and its kink, but at its heart is the story of one curious biologist, and it pays a great respect to the man and his mighty attempt to make American sex a little less taboo.
8 out of 10. It's not exactly popcorn fare, it's definitely not for kids, and the accuracy of the tale is sometimes played fairly loose in favor of the giggly suggestiveness of the topic at hand, but excellent performances all around and an unflinching eye for humanizing its subject (both good and bad) make this a wonderful film.
Liam Neeson ......... Alfred Kinsey
Laura Linney ........ Clara McMillen
Chris O'Donnell ..... Wardell Pomeroy
Peter Sarsgaard ..... Clyde Martin
Timothy Hutton ...... Paul Gebhard
John Lithgow ........ Alfred Seguine Kinsey
Tim Curry ........... Thurman Rice
Oliver Platt ........ Herman Wells
Dylan Baker ......... Alan Gregg
Julianne Nicholson .. Alice Martin
William Sadler ...... Kenneth Braun