Contemporary culture puts sex in our faces. From President Clinton's impeachment to the triple-X spam e-mails in your inbox, you can't avoid erotic information even if you wanted to.
But when Alfred Kinsey began his pioneering research in the 1930s, sexual knowledge resembled those antique maps with huge blank areas that simply read "Undiscovered Country." The biopic Kinsey lays out just how much we didn't know before the Indiana professor began his explosive explorations. The film engrossingly shows how Kinsey's research resisted the forces of ignorance and moralism, breaking ground with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and its feminine follow-up in 1953. But rather than simply extol the virtues of free love, the film shows us that human normalcy is a slippery concept.
Writer/director Bill Condon cleverly introduces Kinsey as he instructs his research assistants on how to gather someone's sexual history by answering questions about his own personal life in a role-playing exercise. In flashback, Kinsey recalls watching his crusading father (John Lithgow) fulminate against the sinfulness of modern inventions, and how even the zipper provides "speedy access to moral oblivion." Kinsey's life's work emerges as one long act of youthful rebellion.
As a biologist, Kinsey conducts groundbreaking research on flightless gall wasps, but when he woos and weds graduate student Clara "Mac" McMillan (Laura Linney), he proves to be hardly an expert in the bedroom. They marry as virgins, and their first time captures the newlyweds' awkwardness and discomfort with rueful humor. But their romantic frustrations give birth to Kinsey's epiphany as he resolves to bring reproductive facts into the open, despite social taboos.
Wanting to do for humans what he did for gall wasps, Kinsey embarks on a sprawling survey of American mating habits. He enlists loyal assistants (including Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton) and poses questions of shocking frankness. Kinsey finds plenty of comedy in the absence of carnal knowledge. Kinsey asks one unhappy couple, "What's your most common sexual position?" and the husband replies "There's more than one?"
Occasionally, Kinsey oversimplifies to score thematic points. Condon finds easy laughs at the expense of the chortling hygiene teacher (Tim Curry) who advocates abstinence as a sure cure for syphilis. When Kinsey and his team gather sexual histories across the country, the film shows a montage of talking heads that spreads across a map of America, with one face per city. The image means to convey America's vibrant diversity but looks more like a commercial for a great cell phone plan.
It's easy to attack sexual repression, and Kinsey swiftly dispatches its target, as it shows couples overcome their hang-ups and find greater intimacy. Kinsey even discovers a childhood sexual dysfunction at the heart of his father's icy cruelty.
But Kinsey's most intriguing scenes confront our standards of normal behavior. At the dinner table, the professor chats with his teenage children about their sex lives, while his assistants, taking their cue from Kinsey, air their private lives out in the open. Both scenes feel like being roped into a "more information than I needed" conversation, and while we sympathize with the uncomfortable characters, Kinsey also makes us realize that social convention dictates our reactions.
The film goes into more troubling territory when Kinsey interviews a middle-aged deviant (William Sadler) who proudly shows extensive records of his life's devotion to every imaginable sex act, including incest and bestiality. Kinsey says he doesn't believe in setting moral limits on people, except when it comes to coerced sex, but such a predatory figure clearly shakes Kinsey's permissiveness.
As if to disprove the adage, "Those who can't, teach," Kinsey acts on his own sexual instincts and has an affair with his bisexual assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard). But he learns that humans can't treat their own sex lives with scientific detachment. When he admits the relationship to Mac, she weeps with heartbreak, and they argue whether marital fidelity suppresses natural drives or keeps couples closer together. Two of his assistants brawl in his office over their open marriages, and Kinsey realizes that keeping emotions separate from sex is easier said than done.
With a nasal accent and a learned ease at lecturing, Neeson fascinatingly shows that Kinsey's passion for clinical understanding always overpowers his own physical pleasures. As a young professor, he nearly bursts with excitement for gall wasps, but as he grows older, a nearly evangelical confidence replaces his dorky enthusiasm. Even his sprouting haircut suggests that Kinsey's intellect shoots sparks.
But his scientific devotion provides no shield when the public furor over his books leads to funding cuts, legal troubles and press attacks. Neeson's eyes look hollow and confused when Kinsey realizes that parts of human nature simply cannot be quantified. By teaching America the facts of life, Kinsey rides a whirlwind, and Neeson's rich, haunting performance conveys the tragic cost those lessons have for the teacher.
This article first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.