Saturday, January 08, 2005

"Kinsey": Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Pun Fully Intended)


directed by Bill Condon
starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Saarsgard, Oliver Platt, a buncha other familiar players

About two-thirds of the way into “Kinsey,” someone tells the titular character, “You know, you’re more square than I thought you’d be.” The comment, minus the sneer, is an apt summation of the movie as a whole.

The speaker is a man who claims to have had sexual relations with over nine thousand adults, children, relatives, and animals: emphasis on children. As he describes, with a knowing leer, what it’s like to bang preadolescents, Kinsey’s attending assistant (played by Chris O’Donnell) leaves the room, unable to contain his disgust. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) pauses for a beat, then resumes the interview with a gravely opaque expression. It’s a fine bit of restrained acting on Neeson’s part. It’s also a glimpse of the abyss where this “Kinsey” dare not go, albeit for sound reasons—and as such, epitomizes both the movie’s key strengths and its shortfall.

“Kinsey” gives us, in reasonably compact form, the life of Alfred Kinsey, mid-twentieth century pioneer of the scientific study of human sexuality. For better or for worse, he is credited with having ripped away the veil of ignorance and secrecy that shrouded Americans' sexual habits and practices. Ironically, though perhaps appropriately, this is not a sexy movie, or even a remotely iconoclastic one. Instead, it’s a classic example of what I call the “well-made movie,” or more specifically, the well-made Great Man Movie. In other words, total Oscar bait.

All of the elements of the formula are there. The seeds planted in childhood, including the all-important struggle with the Tyrannical Father (John Lithgow). The slaying (figurative; castration – we won’t go there) of the Tyrannical Father. The early disappointments. The adoring, forbearing, and long-suffering Wife of Great Man who sets aside her own career to support him. (Goodbye, Jennifer Connelly; helloo, Laura Linney.) The moment of epiphany. The thrill of discovery, constructed around a consistent motif (here, diversity within the species). The struggle against forces from without (including, as always, McCarthyism). The struggle against forces from within (aka Doubt). The reconciliation with the Tyrannical Father, who turns out to have been a victim of his own demons. And the final affirmation from one whose life the Great Man has touched without even knowing it: “You saved my life, sir.”

Those last two scenes are genuinely moving, and I don’t mean to sound overly snarky about the Great Man formula. It's executed here with intelligence and sensitivity, although a few sub-threads are somewhat desultorily treated and ultimately left as loose ends—for example, Kinsey’s relationship with his only son, which (of course) echoes his own relationship with his own father; Kinsey’s quest to publish his most controversial work, a study of sex offenders; strife among Kinsey’s assistants when their spouse-swapping, conducted for purely research purposes, goes too far. The latter episode, in particular, seems to function solely as one of several judiciously spaced moral checks on Kinsey’s eager charge ahead in the name of freedom and discovery—but then, what more can you expect from a movie called “Kinsey”? Notwithstanding these setbacks, there’s no mistaking the movie’s ultimately positive take on its subject. Not so much on what he did or what he was as a man (his nickname was “Prog,” but there are times when you may want to call him Prick—pun fully intended), but on what he was trying to do for humanity—even if it was sometimes, paradoxically, at the expense of what makes humanity human.

Neeson’s performance, initially brittle and mannered, grows on you. (Or at least it did on me.) There’s something slightly, off-puttingly Brand-like about his portrayal of Kinsey’s messianic obsession, but unlike Ibsen’s doomed visionary, he is pulled back from the brink of inhumanity—in large part by his wife, Clara Macmillan, aka “Mac.” Linney, one of the best actresses around, is terrific as always in a role that’s more difficult than it looks. She gets one of the Moral Check moments, in which she reminds her blinkered husband that social taboos might be there for a reason, that you can’t compartmentalize sex and love—and delivers it beautifully. Peter Sarsgaard, otherwise perfectly competent as Kinsey’s prize student, assistant, best boy, and sometime lover, gets the other one, but he doesn’t do it nearly as well. Timothy Hutton, as one of the other assistants, and Oliver Platt, as the sympathetic Indiana University dean who backs Kinsey’s enterprise, stand out in smaller roles.

As I’ve said before, biopics by definition face an uphill battle. “Kinsey” for the most part captures the life of its subject with a sharper focus and more coherent sense of narrative than, say, “Ray,” and shows flashes of gently off-color wit that prevent its restraint from stultifying (unlike the sweetly soporific “Finding Neverland”). Conservative critics are unfortunately unlikely to get past the sheer perversity of celebrating the man who in their view triggered America's slide into sexual degeneracy, while detractors from the left are likely to label the movie as a typically soft-pedaled appeal to bourgeois middle-of-the-road liberalism. I, for one, was struck by how smoothly Condon applies mainstream aesthetic and moral sensibilities to the film's potentially incendiary subject matter. He accomplishes this feat partly by cutting away from the more graphic sexual scenes (or reducing them to grainy B&W), partly by adopting Kinsey's perspective of clinical detachment—though in the case of the sex offender, the film underscores the limits and limitations of this detachment, and of Kinsey's proto-Darwinian fascination with sexual variety among humans. At the opposite end of the spectrum, homosexuality is presented with warmth, clarity, and decided lack of fuss that call to mind Condon's previous film, "Gods and Monsters."

That said, “Kinsey” ultimately ended up being something of an anomaly in my book: the quintessentially square, solid, well-balanced film that I could not, in good faith, expect my parents to enjoy. Condon has made a very decent movie, in every sense of the word. Still, “decent” is a curiously ironic adjective to append to a man who, in his time, blew open the entire concept of decency. One can’t help thinking Dr. Kinsey either deserved much more—or much less.



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