Kinsey

(2004) *** 1/2 R
118 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Bill Condon. Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow.

Writer-director Bill Condon's exceptional Kinsey sticks a pin into Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey and attempts to classify the man whose seminal works Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) forever changed how Americans view sex. Kinsey's many contradictions and awkward personality get full attention from Condon's clever treatment and Liam Neeson's best screen performance in years.

As essayed by Condon (Gods and Monsters) and Neeson, the driven Kinsey was endlessly frustrated as a man and as an educator. Beginning as a bristling youth who has to wriggle free from his repressive teacher-preacher father (John Lithgow), the Harvard-educated Kinsey takes to studying gall wasps and teaching biology with nerdy enthusiasm. When Kinsey and a student named Claire (Laura Linney) size each other up and mutually decide to mate, gall wasps begin to lose their scientific luster. A train wreck of a wedding night and subsequent exploration of compatibility sets Kinsey to thinking: why do we know so little about sex? Soon, Kinsey's classes and course of study focus on a free-thinking examination of human sexual practice. The professor's growing family of student researchers--including Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O'Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton)--help the bisexual Kinsey to blur the line between their personal lives and their subject.

As a biopic--based primarily on Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's Sex, the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey--Condon's Kinsey is better than most, with the scintillating subject matter of Kinsey's unusual life and only the most minor of factual license (many will, of course, quibble with Condon's choices of emphasis and omission, and they are free to do do). As a drama, Kinsey is equally fascinating in Neeson's investigation of a man prone obsessively to diagnose himself alongside (or through) each of his subjects. Condon's film concedes that Kinsey was psychologically warped and that his own frustrations wormed their ways into his work, but the director also rightly celebrates Kinsey as a heroic maverick who fought the good fight to bring man's most basic instinct out of the shadows and into the public discourse.

[For Groucho's interview with Laura Linney, click here.]

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