'Kinsey' Movie Review: Liam Neeson as Controversial Sex Researcher

Liam Neeson, Laura Linney in Kinsey
Kinsey movie with Liam Neeson, Laura Linney

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 Alfred Kinsey movie vs. reality.) 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.”)

Liam Neeson in Kinsey

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.)

Timothy Hutton, Peter Sarsgaard, Liam Neeson, Chris O'Donnell in Kinsey
Timothy Hutton, Peter Sarsgaard, Liam Neeson as Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Chris O'Donnell in Bill Condon's Kinsey

Also like the controversial heroes of previous biopics, Dustin Hoffman's Lenny Bruce in Lenny and Montgomery Clift's Dr. Sigmund Freud in Freud, Kinsey is ostracized because he dares tell the uncomfortable truth to a hypocritical society that wants none of it. But unlike Hoffman's abrasive stand-up comedian or Clift's detached psychoanalyst, Condon's Alfred Kinsey is an eccentric but wholly likable fellow. And therein lies Kinsey's biggest flaw.

Since this is a (mostly) American movie, one can accept hunky Liam Neeson playing the hound-faced Alfred Kinsey, a carbon copy of actor Tom Ewell (the quasi-errant husband in the Marilyn Monroe comedy The Seven Year Itch). However, I found it difficult to accept a sex-obsessed hero who is hardly ever shown enjoying the pleasures of sex. Even if Kinsey was more interested in documenting sex than actually experiencing it (something that is not true according to his biographers), were those clinical experiments a form of erotic stimulation? That's a taboo subject matter as far as Condon is concerned.

Thus, we have a film about sex that is terrified of sensuality. Juvenile and clinical discussions about sex are allowed, but real eroticism and the dreaded NC-17 rating are to be avoided at all costs. Most of the performances suffer as a result, since those people come across more like lab rats than real, sensual human beings. Neeson's power, in particular, is diminished.

Despite a realistic kissing scene with Clyde and a couple of sexual moments with his wife, Kinsey comes across as a bland, asexual observer. Neeson is a capable player (as long as he doesn't have to cry), and he could have been considerably more forceful – if less “likable” – had the film actively dealt with Kinsey's unconstrained sexual behavior (including his reported masochistic tendencies), his arrogance (e.g., Kinsey ignored warnings by some scientists that his methodology was flawed), and his obsession with – or ruthlessness in – getting case histories (including those of pedophiles).

Laura Linney's Clara, for her part, is more an appendix than an actual character. Like countless other devoted film wives, Clara is the one who brings the researchers refreshments, cries when her husband strays, and acts as pacifier during family squabbles. Given the limitations of this underwritten and – apart from the extra-marital sex – conventional role, Linney does surprisingly well.

A few of Kinsey's other supporting players are also quite capable. That includes a handful of bit players, particularly one hilarious elderly woman who claims, “I invented it!” (“It” being masturbation.) Also, Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, is highly effective in a small role as one of Kinsey's assistants. In fact, Hutton is so good that if there is any cinematic justice he will one day star as Dr. Kinsey in a truly fearless version of the researcher's life.

Liam Neeson, Lynn Redgrave in Kinsey

But Kinsey's acting highlight is the appearance of Lynn Redgrave, nearly unrecognizable under a Doris Day wig, as the final on-screen subject of the Kinsey study. Redgrave's talking head unleashes a firestorm of emotion that is noticeably absent from the rest of the film. In that one sequence, Kinsey is miraculously transformed into a movie about flesh-and-blood human beings. Had Condon managed to convey throughout his film half the amount of sheer humanness generated in the Redgrave sequence, Kinsey would have been a masterpiece.

As it is, this moderately daring biopic is an adequate look at the life of a controversial and still relevant figure whose revolutionary work, if performed in the United States, would be as misconstrued today as it was more than half a century ago. Much has changed, Redgrave's thankful character tells Dr. Kinsey. Sadly, however, much still remains the same.

Note: A version of this Kinsey review was initially posted in October 2004.

KINSEY (2004). Dir. / Scr.: 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.

1 Academy Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress: Laura Linney

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