(director/writer: Bill Condon; cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; editor: Virginia Katz; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Liam Neeson (Alfred C. Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara McMillen), Chris O’Donnell (Wardell Pomeroy), Peter Sarsgaard (Clyde Martin), Timothy Hutton (Paul Gebhard), John Lithgow (Alfred Seguine Kinsey), Tim Curry (Thurman Rice), Oliver Platt (Herman Wells), Dylan Baker (Alan Gregg), Lynn Redgrave (final interview subject); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Gail Mutrux; Fox Searchlight; 2004)
“Covers too much and says too little.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Despite the still risqué subject matter (handled so safely that it probably won’t even disturb moderates in the red states) and the brilliant performance by Liam Neeson as Dr. Alfred Kinsey and the satisfactory one by Laura Linney as his free-thinking wife Clara McMillen, the film was still conceived too much like a clinical presentation of human sexuality that was mixed for entertainment purposes with a dash of camp sex scenes that were explained rather than allowed to develop on their own accord.
The researcher’s work is examined during the ’40s and early ’50s–a time when American puritanism was reflective of the country’s uptight attitude toward sex. Writer-director Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) shoots a mostly conventional biopic of the pioneering but square sex researcher.
Kinsey started out as a Harvard-educated zoologist who taught biology at Indiana University, with his specialty being the study of the gall wasps. He experienced mental anguish over the fact that his pious Sunday School teacher father Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) never accepted his work or beliefs, and as a result of this rejection he was fighting against his father’s puritanism for the rest of his life even though he still shared his father’s arrogant puritan attitude — but only for a different cause. Clara McMillen was Kinsey’s student at Indiana, who shared his open-minded beliefs. When the just married couple, both virgins, were experiencing sexual problems and had no clue on how to work things out, they sought the advice of a doctor. Kinsey at that point realized that there are many others who have no guidance on sexual matters, and something should be done to change that oversight. The only sex counseling the university offers is the hygiene class of the rigid professor (Tim Curry), who was teaching abstinence as the answer to all sex problems. The university’s supportive but skittish president, Herman Wells (Oliver Platt), grants Kinsey permission to teach a class on “marriage” and it becomes popular with students who are pleased by the frank way Kinsey handles his talks on sexual behavior.
Wanting to explore further the taboo sex subject, the now obsessed with sex Kinsey receives a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to research human sexual behavior through an exhaustive series of interviews with hundreds of diverse men. The research team consisting of Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton) gets the men to openly talk about their personal sex experiences. It results in the 1948 bestseller “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” telling about the intimate aspects of their sex lives, and it was hoped that its results changed the way Americans looked upon sex. The film gives us a healthy dose of how the Kinsey team conducted these interviews and begun the sexual revolution that swept across America. But it also stirs up controversy, as many religious leaders and the religious right-wing take exception to the findings that men have much more premarital, extramarital, and homosexual activity than anyone had ever thought.
The studies are not that different from how the Kinsey team reacts to sex in their private lives, as Kinsey has sex with team member Clyde Martin and some of his researchers get involved in wife-swapping. Kinsey’s wife has remained home raising their children, but agrees to an affair with the same Clyde Martin, which her hubby reluctantly agrees to.
The crusading Kinsey’s follow-up study on women, the bestseller “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” in 1953, is viewed by the moral majority as an attack on American values. Kinsey’s name is suddenly smeared as filth across the media and the Rockefeller Foundation through its program director (Dylan Baker) withdraws their funding after a congressional investigation frightens them off. This causes Kinsey’s downfall and eventual martyrdom to the cause, as no other person or organization comes forth to provide him with funds. Soon Kinsey’s health begins to deteriorate and he becomes depressed that he couldn’t complete his work, and in 1956 he dies of a heart attack at the age of 62–but his name is still remembered today for his contributions to better understanding sexual behavior and it still provokes controversy.
Condon’s film is intelligent but too dry to be inspiring. To its credit, it treats its sex subject with a sobering seriousness and not sensationalism. But the film wasn’t engaging as it tried to make a decent biography about a life that couldn’t be told in such a prim way. In the end, the film covers too much and says too little, becoming too superficial a look to fully provoke any further thought on the impact Kinsey’s monumental lifework had on the country. Since the moral climate of the country hasn’t changed much since Kinsey’s days as evidenced in the recent election about all the furor over same-sex marriages, this film therefore makes Kinsey’s groundbreaking work seem overstated. It’s a much too mild mainstream film that pats itself on the back for bringing up such a tantalizing subject and arguing for tolerance about one’s sexual differences, but it didn’t really take a whack at all the things that could have spiced it up such as the still hot-button abortion issue to the gay rights struggle to pornography ruining the minds of future generations–things we could only now have fun speculating on what Kinsey’s position might have been.
REVIEWED ON 11/29/2004 GRADE: C +