Kinsey (2004): Bill Condon’s Biopic, Starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney

Alfred Charles Kinsey, whose name became synonymous with sex (not always in a positive way), is celebrated as a victimized crusader in Kinsey, an extremely ambitious but ultimately flawed biopic.

Impressive in scope, Bill Condon’s feature is bogged down by a frame that tries to encompass too many events for a two-hour picture and by a simplistic Freudian psychology in explaining the psyche of a man who was a pioneering scientist and thinker well ahead of his conservative times.

As a biopicture, Kinsey provides enough details to suggest how complex Kinsey was, both as a public persona and a private man. But the film is not entirely satisfying, falling victim to several setbacks that often plague the biopicture genre.

It may sound strange to fault a Hollywood film for being too ambitious, but Kinsey is trying to do much within its given running time. This is not to suggest that Kinsey should have been a telepicture, though the richness and density of the life at its center merits a deeper look that may be more suitable for a mini-series format.

The film’s first half takes its time in establishing Kinsey and the social and moral contexts in which he lived. But the second half gives the impression that Condon is trying to cram too many tumultuous events, which results in a breezy presentation, a tempo that’s too rushed, and an element of superficiality, too. Kinsey is not shapeless exactly but it’s overly episodic, jumping rather erratically from one era to another.

You don’t have to be an auteurist critic to realize that Kinsey is a logical follow-up to Condon’s impressive debut, Gods and Monsters, for which he won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Both films deal with outsiders who’re misfits par excellence. Gods and Monsters chronicles episodes in the life of James Whale, the gay director who specialized in horror flicks and died mysteriously. Kinsey centers on a sex researcher who became a celeb, only to experience a downfall when the political climate changed. Moreover, both films benefit immensely from their central performances: Ian McKellen as Whale, and Liam Neeson as Kinsey.

Indeed, for the intense title role that spans decades, Condon had the good sense of casting Neeson, whose strong physical presence suggests a natural leader who’s a force of nature. Though big and tall, Neeson is endowed with a sensitive, gentle side, which enables him to convey Kinsey’s complex emotional life. Fortunately, unlike other actors of his cohort, Neeson is not associated yet with a particular screen image, hence his facility to play a wide range of roles, from Oskar Schindler to Michael Collins to Rob Roy to Priest Vallon (DiCaprio’s father) in Gangs of New York–and now Kinsey.

The film is divided into chapters, each revolving around crucial events in Kinsey’s life. Condon illustrates how Kinsey’s personality was shaped in counter-reaction to his rigid and demanding father (John Lithgow), a Methodist Sunday school teacher, who ridiculed him as a boy and later showed contempt for his interests. According to the film, Kinsey’s puritanical upbringing made him inadequate as a lover and husband. This Freudian psychology, placing Kinsey vis-a-vis his father and trying to understand his psyche in Oedipal terms, may strike the more sophisticated viewers as both simple and simplistic.

The narrative follows Kinsey as he joins, at age 26, the faculty of Indiana University as assistant professor of zoology. It shows how, initially, Kinsey’s obsessive interests in tiny insects made him an unlikely candidate to become a sex researcher.

Kinsey’s life changes dramatically after meeting Clara Bracken McMillen (Laura Linney), an equally brainy student at Indiana. Stronger and even more stubborn than Kinsey, Clara is the only person who’s able to distract him from the microscope. She’s a flexible woman, able to cop with a difficult man, and open to sexual experimentation, to satisfy her own curiosity and pleasure.

One of the film’s best scenes takes place on the couple’s wedding night, during which both confess of their virginity. At 26, even by standards of his times, Kinsey lacks basic knowledge and any experience in sexual matters. There’s a frank, funny scene dealing with Kinsey’s large penis, which Clara can’t take, that leads to a corrective surgery. Since we never hear of this problem again, the assumption is that the couple had a healthy and lively sex life.

At first, the picture idealizes Kinsey, showing him as a zealous, hard-working scientist. The film suggests that Kinsey’s interest in understanding the sacred institutions of marriage and sexuality was prompted in 1938, when he taught a course on marriage, the instruction of which made him realize how little systematic knowledge existed. Books about sex are not only outdated but are also filled with fantasies and myths, to the point of being misleading, deceptive, and unacceptable to students.

In his classes, Kinsey handles matter-of-factly the then unheard of issues of desire, arousal, and orgasm. He becomes the first professor to project on screen male and female genitalia Initially, his unabashed, confrontational approach proves to be shocking and embarrassing–this is, after all, puritanical America of the late Depression era. And as is often the case of teaching new subject matter, Kinsey’s courses attract just as many admirers as critics and foes.

Among Kinsey’s followers are three earnest and enthusiastic men (well-played by Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, and Timothy Hutton). Kinsey begins to instruct them in how to collect information about such sensitive issues as sexual norms and practices methodically and properly–his first dictate to his interviewers is: “Never make a judgment.” Neeson plays Kinsey as a hedonist, open-minded researcher for whom no sexual act is unnatural or abnormal.

These interviews, which are scattered throughout the film, are straightforward and uncensored, dealing with taboo issues such as the frequency of orgasms. Shot in stylized black-and-white, which make them more visible, the interviews are the equivalent of musical numbers, or punctuation points. A wonderful montage shows how a few talking heads multiply into dozens and hundreds of people across a map of the U.S., all willingly and happily talking about their bedroom habits.

A trip to Chicago with young associate Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard), to interview men in a gay bar, proves to be more eventful than anticipated. In fact, the session goes so well that later that night in their hotel room, Clyde makes a pass on Kinsey and the latter responds passionately. In what is one of the film’s weakest scenes, a brief affair between the men follows, though it’s never clear to what extent it’s based on sheer curiosity or actual bisexual tendencies.

What’s nice about these scenes is that they capture the collective enthusiasm, the intimacy between Kinsey and his loyal assistants, who become like one intimate extended family, whose norms go way beyond professional matters. As such, they resemble the equally exciting scenes in Reversal of Fortune, which depict how Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) works with his bright students on defending Claus von Bulow, accused of attempting to murder his wife.

Many scholars consider January 1948, the publication date of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, to be a turning point in American cultural history. As a result, hypotheses are formulated about the exact percentage of the American population that’s gay, straight, and bisexual, and how to define and to distinguish these sexual orientations.

Kinsey encourages a swinging, bohemian lifestyle among his protgs and their women, and they begin extra-marital affairs, swapping girlfriends. However, human nature being what is its, soon there’s conflict, jealousy, and rivalry, and the whole experimentation falls apart. It’s never clear if the men were more interested in such practices than the women. Did they actually enjoy doing it Or why they engaged in such behavior in the first place

The political context and mores of American keeps changing–to Kinsey’s disadvantage. With success come fame and celebrity, but also scrutiny from the FBI and conservative leaders, and, eventually, withdrawal of crucial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.

In its last reel, Kinsey takes cues from other investigative film-exposes soaked with paranoia to describe Kinsey as a victimized crusader. Problem is, the more suffering Kinsey endures and the more marginalized he becomes, the less interesting he is as a screen hero. Indeed, the last chapters are disappointing, describing a pale, sick, and exhausted Kinsey, descending into his quick and untimely death of heart attack, in 1956, at the age of 62.

The scope is so broad and the goals so embracing, that, inevitably, Kinsey leaves many gaps open for speculation. At the end, you may wonder: Was Kinsey too obsessive in his studies, too self-involved to the point of isolation and self-destruction Was the scientific community’s criticism of his work justified These are crucial questions that the film raises admirably but is unable to answer within its frame and format.

To Condon’s credit as writer and director, Kinsey tells a riveting life in a disarming, accessible manner. However, though based on extensive research and huge amounts of data, Kinsey doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts–though most of the parts are fascinating to watch.