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A look at the man who dissected the birds and the bees

There’s a moment at the end of Kinsey when Liam Neeson stands quietly amid the redwoods listening to the forest around him. It’s a metaphorical return for the zoologist-turned-sex scientist. He’s in the twilight of his life, having lost his research funding and found himself scorned by both academia and society for daring to “insectisize” mankind’s sexual behavior. Still, here in the ancient certainty of the natural world, Kinsey finds inspiration.

The scene beautifully underscores the central conflict in this enigmatic man: What does it mean to be both a committed researcher of human behavior and one of its subjects?

An extreme rationalist, Kinsey believed that science needed to triumph over religious dogma in both the lab and the bedroom.

The publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male made Alfred Kinsey an instant celebrity. His controversial study was a surprise bestseller. Five years later, the companion piece, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was unexpectedly greeted with hostility and disgust. The thought of masturbating sisters and lesbian grandmothers was simply too much for 1953 America to stomach. Red-baiting pundits and politicians accused Kinsey of attacking the nation’s moral fiber.

It is to writer/director Bill Condon’s credit that Kinsey may once again encourage conversation about the tangled web of human sexuality. While his clever and intelligent script occasionally tempts controversy, it refuses, much as Kinsey did, to moralize.

Condon certainly has fun poking at America’s troubling preoccupation with and insistent moralizing of sex, but he achieves something more ambitious here. Kinsey presents a complex man wrestling with his intellectual obsessions while struggling to understand his own blossoming bisexuality. The film is savvy enough to balance heady ideas with moments of personal introspection and humor. It consistently surprises with comic, poignant and, on occasion, uncomfortable details.

Late in the film, there’s a particularly disturbing scene with a criminally sexual deviant (William Stadler). While Kinsey’s assistant becomes increasingly appalled by the man’s self-aggrandizing accounts of pedophilia, Kinsey struggles to remain impartial, documenting the behavior for its scientific value. Neither indicting nor defending Kinsey’s actions, the film presents the question: Is there something to be learned from even the most immoral of acts?

The supporting cast is first-rate. Laura Linney delivers a thoughtful and sensitive performance as Kinsey’s wife, Clara. Peter Sarsgaard is terrific as the openly bisexual assistant who beds both Kinsey and his wife. Tim Curry, in a bit of tongue-in-cheek casting, gleefully plays a prudish academic rival, and John Lithgow has a welcome return to form as Kinsey’s insufferable and, ultimately, pathetic father.

Only Neeson comes up a bit short. His performance is accomplished but too internalized. His character remains frustratingly inscrutable even in the film’s most dramatic moments.

If I have one major complaint with Kinsey, it’s the highly predictable structure of the story (and a rather long and unfortunate montage). Condon tries to give us too much of Kinsey’s life in too linear a fashion. We are afforded many glimpses of the man’s domestic life but with too little detail. There’s a sense that a deeper and richer personal story is sacrificed in favor of Kinsey’s big ideas.

Despite criticisms of his methodologies and conclusions, there is no doubt Kinsey was a pioneer. His work changed not only the way Americans think about sex, but also how we talk about it. By demystifying this basic human behavior he absolved much of the unnecessary shame imposed by moral tyrants. Given recent polemics against homosexual relationships, birth control and stem cell research, Kinsey reminds us how, even now, there are many who prefer to live in self-righteous ignorance.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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