Film — Kinsey (R)

Kinsey (R)

by Amy Diaz

Liam Neeson dorks it up for his portrayal of the nerdiest sex expert ever in the biopic Kinsey.

Neeson, a handsome man, all but disappears into the Poindexter-ish squareness and social awkwardness of a man who spent a good part of his youth collecting gall wasps. No, he was not just collecting these non-flying insects — he was fascinated by them. Entranced. Consumed by a desire to understand them completely.

When Alfred Kinsey (Neeson) finally does turn his attention to human sexuality — almost by accident — he does so with the same passion, though not for the parts of sex that you might think would foster such heady feelings. He doesn’t get all frothy over the idea of what the subjects of his study do in bed — he gets excited about the prospect of numbers. He wants to know what everybody does in bed.

Kinsey grows up in a puritanical household, one run by a father (John Lithgow) who not only preaches against sin but does so with a pompous, insufferable vigor. As soon as possible, Kinsey escapes into schooling, specifically biology. He begins his egghead study of insects and pours all his energies into academia, so much so that the first time he has sex it’s on his wedding night.

Married in his late 20s to Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney), Kinsey has have an awkward and painful first sexual encounter with his wife. It’s so bad that they seem unsure about the future of their marriage. They go to a doctor who gives them a few pointers and the Kinseys finally find satisfaction. Professor Kinsey — noted in his university’s zoology department — also finds himself slowly gaining a reputation as the professor who knows something about sex. Other young marrieds go to him with questions, so many that he looks into what, exactly, young people know about sex. He finds two sources of information, an absurd book called Ideal Marriage and an even more absurd hygiene class taught by the hissing moralist Thurman Rice (a Tim Curry as flamboyant with his priggishness as he’s ever been with debauchery). What do people really do in bed, Kinsey wonders, and when do they start to do it?

Suddenly, the nerd half of his brain kicks in and he begins a deep investigative study of sex. He teaches a marriage course and uses it and his students as a launching pad for extensive research. He hands out questionnaires which uncover a lot more masturbation, premarital sex and extramarital sex and an endless variety of technique than anyone had ever suspected. He also realizes that, aside from this one stilted survey of college students, no additional information exists anywhere. Kinsey and his assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) venture out in endless search of “histories.” He or one of his researchers interviews a subject and takes down a series of cryptic notes that only they will be able to decipher. The study calls for as many histories as possible and Kinsey relentlessly digs for histories from every group possible, including as many from gay men as he can get. Almost robotic in his emotional demeanor and completely incapable of embarrassment, Kinsey’s blankness gets his subjects to display a surprising amount of openness.

It also leads to some personal troubles. A virgin at marriage, Kinsey’s research helps him understands his own homosexual impulses and his research pushes him to give these desires a try, first with Clyde. As compartmentalized as Kinsey can be with these actions, they aren’t as easy for his wife to dismiss, which perhaps explains why she is just as eager to have her own extramarital experiences. In the spirit of research, Kinsey encourages his growing staff to have sex with each other and to swap wives, but is not well attuned to the social troubles that causes.

Kinsey is kind to the scientist, his methods and his foibles but it doesn’t excuse his mistakes or his miscalculations. For a movie about sex, most of the fire is in the sense of discovery and accomplishment — a fact best demonstrated by a scene where Lynn Redgrave, playing an interview subject, explains how Kinsey’s research gave her a better understanding of herself and, she says, saved her life.

The movie gives us a good sense of the (not unfamiliar) mores of the 1950s and an understanding of how social stigma can quash research. But more than it tries to expound any particular viewpoint, Kinsey gives us a superbly drawn portrait of an innovator, someone singularly driven by a need to solve a problem and what that drive can do to the rest of their life.

- Amy Diaz

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH