Direction and screenplay: Bill Condon (There’s a "thank you" credit to Kinsey biographer Johnathan Gathorne-Hardy and his book, Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Lynn Redgrave, Katharine Houghton
At one point in Kinsey, Liam Neeson’s polemical Dr. Alfred Kinsey tells a reporter that it would be "useless" to make a film of his 1948 book on male sexuality. Be that as it may, Kinsey would probably have recognized that his extraordinary life could well be the stuff that great movies are made of.
Writer-director Bill Condon surely thinks so, and his Kinsey is an honorable attempt to portray the life and times of the pioneering sex researcher, whose studies on the sexual behavior of American men and women remain controversial to this day. (See Kinsey notes.) But despite Condon’s good intentions, Kinsey is ultimately no more than a well-crafted, formulaic "message" biopic that sanitizes its subject matter while pretending to be as revolutionary in its approach to sex as its offbeat hero.
Much of the film is told via flashbacks, with Kinsey acting as a subject of his own experiment by answering questions about his past. We learn about his father, a rabidly religious part-time church lecturer who believed that sex was a necessary evil for procreation — but only then. (This anti-sex crusader is played with half-crazed glee by John Lithgow, who seems to be having way too much fun with the role.)
We also learn that in the perverse environment in which Kinsey — and millions of others — grew up, non-procreational sex had to be made dangerous. Cunnilingus, we’re told, will lead to sterility. Masturbation will lead to blindness, or, via internal bleeding, to death itself.
When Kinsey rebels against his father’s pathological views of sex, he goes to the other extreme: from absolute sexual repression to absolute sexual liberation. Whether he ever felt pangs of the old Christian guilt is never discussed in Condon’s film.
According to the filmmaker, Kinsey was a one-man sex lib movement. In his view, sex, whether with males, females, or both, is a natural means of human expression. In fact, the doctor encourages his assistants and even his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), to be equally liberated. According to Kinsey, it doesn’t take much convincing for the (almost invariably off-camera) fun to begin.
With the 1948 publication of his first bestseller, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey becomes an internationally known figure. From then on, things begin going wrong for him. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1953, is greeted with outrage and disgust. American society had stared at itself in the bedroom mirror and it wasn’t at all happy with what it saw. In the puritanical and paranoid 1950s, the controversial doctor is accused of being both a pervert and a Communist. (Had Kinsey been around in the early 21st century, the rabid right would likely have accused him of being a "cultural terrorist.")
All of the above is rich material for a great film, but Bill Condon offers little more than a superficial, derivative history lesson. Like Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur, Edward G. Robinson’s syphilis researcher in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, and myriad other film geniuses, Kinsey is obsessed with his work. And like in most biopics, the drama feels artificial and contrived. For instance, Kinsey’s homosexual feelings comes as no surprise to his young, bisexual assistant, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), even though apart from a subtle "plant" earlier in the film there had been absolutely no indication of the professor’s two-way sexual orientation.
Later on, Clyde’s angry outburst against Kinsey’s "open door" sex policies seems both self-righteous and phony. Condon, via his film character, is sermonizing that sexual liberation leads to unforeseen nasty consequences (in this case, infidelity and jealousy), as if Clyde and all the other willing participants in Kinsey’s free-sex experiments were little children unaware of the emotional entanglements of sexual activity. (Curiously, there’s only a brief mention of condom use in the film; back in those days, apparently no one was much afraid of venereal diseases or unwanted pregnancies.)