November 24, 2004
When a teenage Alfred Kinsey watches his pulpitpounding Lutheran father (John Lithgow) decry the sin-facilitating invention of the pants zipper — "Speedy access to moral oblivion! " the older Kinsey fumes — your first instinct is laugh at the man’s grotesque piety.
Then you feel a swell of pity for the boy, because you know the memory will plague him for the rest of his life.
That life is revealed with ingenious clarity and insight in "Kinsey," writerdirector Bill Condon’s fascinating portrait of the controversial biologist and sex researcher. Shot through with moral and psychological suspense, it’s a harrowing story of exploration and daring, like Vasco da Gama meets Masters and Johnson.
Played with a robust blend of bravado and vulnerability by Liam Neeson ("Schindler’s List"), Alfred Kinsey was nothing if not obsessive. Dubbed "Prok" (short for "Professor K") by his students at Indiana University, Kinsey was a respected researcher who cataloged more than a million gall wasp specimens before pioneering the field of sex research in the late 1930s.
Having overcome sexual difficulties — more logistical than sexual, actually — with his own wife (Laura Linney from "The Truman Show"), Kinsey initially enters the sex field to oblige his woefully misinformed students.
When one dysfunctional young couple confesses that they’ve never tried oral sex because it "hinders reproduction," Kinsey dutifully throws himself into his new passion.
What begins as a "marriage" class swiftly evolves into a massive, coast-to-coast case history survey that eventually would spawn two bestselling books: "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and the more divisive "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953).
While Kinsey’s celebrity explodes, another more private drama unfolds: His clinical, elastic attitude toward sex becomes cancerous.
Wife-swapping, scandal and infighting — much of it involving Kinsey’s research assistants (played by Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard and Timothy Hutton) — tear the project apart. Instead of the sexual utopia he imagined, Kinsey is confronted with McCarthyism and public disfavor.
Condon — the Oscarwinning writer-director of "Gods and Monsters" — gives Kinsey no quarter. Chillingly, the professor meets his match in a pathological sex predator (William Sadler) whose openfaced confessions of deviancy challenge Kinsey’s strict humanism.
Neeson’s expressions of discomfort during this scene are punishing; it is, by many degrees, his most conflicted performance.
With its parade of anonymous faces and snippets of half-heard confession, "Kinsey" depicts Prok as a tragic hero in a modern "Paradise Lost." For all the people he interviewed and liberated, he was, in a sense, culturally retarded.
Convinced that all sexual barriers are essentially destructive — bred from his father’s religious fervor — he couldn’t anticipate the chaos, both personal and professional, that would erupt when he tried to tear them down.
Sexually speaking, "Kinsey" is actually sort of quaint. Most modern seventh-graders are more informed than the superstitious college students who populated Kinsey’s classroom. But that’s the point.
By cornering the scientist and reversing polarity on his one-way mirror, Condon shows us something we haven’t necessarily seen before: The observer becoming the observed.