Don't worry—this review will not include Judge Joe Armenio's sexual history.
Let's talk about sex.
Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) wrote and directed this biopic about Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), the pioneering researcher whose studies of human sexuality, published in 1948 and 1953, sought to liberate Americans from the repressive morality that tended to shape knowledge and attitudes about sex. I feel a little guilty about this review, since the film was clearly made by talented and well-meaning people who worked very hard to bring this story to the screen, and with whose opinions on matters of sexual morality I largely agree. However, the film is too earnest and didactic to work as art, too schematic in its organization, too blunt in its treatment of ideas. In its desire to create a Kinsey (played here by Liam Neeson, Schindler's List) who is an acceptable hero for 21st-century liberals, it also sidesteps some aspects of his character that might have enriched the story.
Facts of the Case
In accordance with biopic convention, the film locates the origins of Kinsey's attitudes in his childhood. His father (John Lithgow, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) is shown as a stern, repressive moralist who taught of the evils of sexuality and derided his son for wanting to study biology rather than engineering. The film then follows Kinsey's courtship of and marriage to a free-thinking student, Clara MacMillan (Laura Linney, Mystic River), suggesting that the sexual difficulties they faced early in their marriage were an important spur to Kinsey's desire to pursue the frank and nonjudgmental study of sexuality. As Kinsey's stature grows, he becomes an increasingly controversial figure, seen as a patron saint of sexual liberation by some and as dangerously perverse by others. The film also deals with Kinsey's own sexuality; there is a subplot involving the complications caused by his homosexual affair with an assistant (Peter Sarsgaard, Boys Don't Cry), and one about the "open marriages" he encouraged among those who worked with him.
What makes Kinsey such a polarizing figure, even today, is his refusal to judge. He wanted to catalogue the sexual habits of Americans without prescription, and rejected the concept of "normality." His studies showed that Americans, in massive numbers, engaged in sexual activities considered morally dubious: homosexuality, extramarital sex, masturbation, bestiality. In retrospect, with the call during the 1960s for a more free, open, and nonjudgmental attitude toward sex, Kinsey's studies seem like important precursors to that decade's sexual revolution.
Writer-director Condon clearly admires Kinsey, and Neeson portrays the biologist as a sort of awkward dynamo, filled with energy and ideas, socially inept but possessed of an enormous sensitivity and compassion. The problem is that Condon often seems to be working from checklists titled "Important Issues Raised by the Life of Alfred Kinsey" and "Things My Critics Might Say," dutifully ticking off each issue as he deals with it in the script. This might be a good way of writing a research paper, but it's more problematic for a dramatic film. Condon is so taken with Kinsey's ideas that he often fails to dramatize them properly; there are too many scenes in which Kinsey is simply lecturing to someone, or presenting an idea in rather clunky and stilted dialogue. Many aspects of his life are presented so perfunctorily that I'd prefer that they weren't dealt with at all. For example, there's a brief sequence in which the sexual freedom practiced by members of Kinsey's staff leads to conflict among them. This is intended to make it clear that some of Kinsey's ideas on sex were potentially damaging, but the subplot is given a very small amount of screen time, and Condon doesn't bother to conclude it definitively. The emotional lives of the wives of Kinsey's staff members are also totally ignored in this little episode; the conflict is entirely one between men.
In another episode, Kinsey deals with the "omniphile" and compulsive cataloguer Kenneth Braun (William Sadler), whose sexual résumé includes experiences with family members, animals, and children. Sadler's character is intended as a sort of distorted mirror image of Kinsey, someone who has taken his nonjudgmental attitude too far. Kinsey's assistant becomes fed up and leaves the room when Braun mentions his sexual experiences with young boys; Braun then derides Kinsey as "square" when he insists that his refusal to judge does not carry over to nonconsensual sex. This scene is perhaps a necessary one for ideological purposes: Some of Kinsey's more extreme detractors have expressed revulsion at his use of information about children's sexuality, and some have called him a "pedophile," so it's important to Condon to make clear that Kinsey doesn't approve of Braun's activities. But the scene is forced and stilted dramatically. Having the hero (Kinsey) unambiguously provide the "correct" answer to the questions posed by Braun closes off the scene to the viewer, makes it literal and didactic rather than thought-provoking. Much of Kinsey feels this way. I've seen it three times now (once in the theater, once for this review, and then again with Condon's commentary) and I don't feel as though I've learned much from the repeat viewings. All of the film's meanings are presented bluntly, on the surface.
Although the film is more sexually frank than most Hollywood films in both its words and images, it also pulls some punches. Kinsey's more aggressively unorthodox behavior, like his penchant for public sex, is ignored. His homosexual desires are portrayed solely in terms of his affair with Sarsgaard's character; there's no indication that he had other gay encounters. His masochism is treated briefly near the end of the film, in one of its more effectively dramatic scenes, but it's seen as an aberration, the desperate behavior of a despairing man. Again, this might be politically necessary; Condon always seems wary of giving fodder to Kinsey's conservative critics, or of being accused of sensationalizing. However, it makes the film feel a little safe, a little bland.
Fox is releasing Kinsey in two versions. There's a one-disc edition which includes the film and Bill Condon's audio commentary. The "Special Edition" contains a second disc of extras, including a feature-length documentary entitled The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film, 21 deleted scenes (totaling about 24 minutes), a seven-minute guided tour of an exhibit at the Kinsey Institute, some bloopers, and an interactive sex questionnaire. The widescreen transfer of the film is excellent, and Condon's commentary is genial and informative, as he provides information on the film's cast and crew, his own ideas about the film, and the rather tortuous four-year process by which it was financed and made.
As for the material on the second disc, The Kinsey Report is by far the most substantive at 83 minutes. It contains interviews with Condon, producer Gail Mutrux, and various other cast and crew members, both talking about the film and answering various playful questions about their own sexual histories. Many of the interviews by Condon and others repeat things that the director says in his commentary. The only really new element in the film is archival footage of Kinsey himself, both video and audio. The rest of the extras are fairly fluffy; the only one that's worthy of mention is the series of deleted scenes, which also include commentary from Condon. As for the interactive sex questionnaire, I guess it's intended to provide an example of the Kinsey Institute's research methods. If you've ever wanted a DVD to ask you how easily you become sexually aroused, your long wait is over. Overall, it's hard to recommend the special edition to any but the most avid Kinseyphiles.
Kinsey got its theatrical release in November 2004, about a week after a presidential election in which "moral issues," such as the state's recognition of homosexual unions, were widely debated. For this reason, the film's message of sexual openness and tolerance seems especially important now. Sign me up as a sympathizer to its cause, but I'm sorry to say that the movie didn't do much for me.
Alfred Kinsey has been accused of so much he couldn't possibly be guilty of it all.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Bill Condon
Review content copyright © 2005 Joe Armenio; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.