Movie review: 'Kinsey'

EntertainmentMoviesScienceArts and CultureSexLiteratureTim Curry

3 ½ stars (out of 4)

What price is sexual candor?

"Kinsey" gives us a few notions. This hip, highly partisan biography of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey is a surprisingly entertaining movie about the perils of studying sexual behavior in a sexually uptight culture--our own.

Bill Condon's film, unabashedly pro-Kinsey, is a moving and often very funny look at an unlikely revolutionary, the scholarly Indiana University biologist whose rigorous investigations into the statistics of American sexuality changed our country's sociocultural landscape. It's a fairly inclusive bio-drama: Condon follows Kinsey from boyhood to the brink of death, from an Eagle Scout country upbringing to early academic success (in insectology) to his first trail-blazing classes in human sexuality, to the advent of his celebrated research interviews, to world fame and notoriety as the sexologist whom social conservatives loved to hate.

Those researches first brought Kinsey worldwide fame--as a bestselling author, subject of magazine cover profiles and even a mention in Cole Porter's "Too Darn Hot"--but later, venomous opposition, McCarthy-era status as a pariah and a premature death from heart disease in 1956. The movie covers all of this, underscored by the personal drama of the Kinseys' own sexual awakening and that of their student research staff.

Condon is at his best in the lighter opening and midsection, rather than the darker denouement. But he's helped immeasurably by his wonderful cast. At the movie's heart are Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in two very impressive performances as Kinsey and his wife. Neeson--with his monumental presence, leonine profile and mischievous eyes--radiates movie gravitas, rebelliousness and quiet courage as the professor who realizes the lack of basic information about sexual behavior. So does Linney as Kinsey's even more sympathetic wife, the brainy and indomitable Clara McMillen Kinsey. These are charismatic, emotionally deep, knowingly humorous performances.

In contrast, the Kinseys' dashing young researchers--played by Peter Sarsgaard (as Clyde Martin, who allegedly seduces them both), Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton--supply amusing comic-romantic relief.

Neeson and Linney convincingly and sometimes whimsically portray the Kinseys as a loving, learned but against-the-grain couple who emerges from the more outwardly puritanical '20s and '30s to provide a bridge to the more sexually open '60s--most explosively through Kinsey's two landmark works, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953).

This is a serious subject, and one that still prompts livid arguments. But the surprise of Condon's movie is not its seriousness but its humor. The film shows the Kinseys, their friends (including Oliver Platt as their university champion Herman Wells) and enemies (a venomous professor played by Tim Curry and fatuous "philanthropist" Huntington Hartford, played by John McMartin) with unusual perceptiveness and wit. It playfully reveals staff sexual affairs and gets both fun and horror from the sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking contrast between sober, scientific questioning and unbuttoned answers.

Condon, whose Oscar-winning "Gods and Monsters" screenplay sympathetically portrayed gay Hollywood horror movie director James Whale ("Frankenstein"), focuses on Kinsey as a hero not just of science but a beacon for America's sexually marginalized--which is why the casting of the sturdy, statuesque Neeson works so well. For Condon, Kinsey was a classic American rebel, born in a prejudiced and sexually repressed household led by a severely censorious teacher-preacher father (John Lithgow), who surmounted that blinkered background. . The replication of the original Kinsey interviews gives the film its unexpected humor. Those sometimes hilarious, occasionally poignant interviews remind us of the puritan tradition that Kinsey helped undermine as well as the volatile and not always happy sexual progress since.

"Kinsey"

Directed and written by Bill Condon; photographed by Frederick Elmes; edited by Virginia Katz; production designed by Richard Sherman; music by Carter Burwell; produced by Gail Mutrux. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality).

Alfred Kinsey - Liam Neeson
Clara McMillen Kinsey - Laura Linney
Wardell Pomeroy - Chris O'Donnell
Clyde Martin - Peter Sarsgaard
Paul Gebhard - Timothy Hutton
Alfred Sequine Kinsey - John Lithgow
Thurman Rice - Tim Curry
Herman Wells - Oliver Platt
Alan Gregg - Dylan Baker
Kenneth Braun - William Sadler
Final Interview Subject - Lynn Redgrave

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