Friday, December 31, 2004
Most biopics tend to fall prey to the same pitfall: trying to capture an entire life story in two hours. This narrative challenge has plagued everything from "Ray" to "Beyond the Sea" to "Alexander."
The year's more successful biopics (such as "The Aviator" and "The Sea Inside") pick a finite stretch of a person's life and focus on that.
Unfortunately, "Kinsey" falls into the former category. The film feels too broad, with subplots left unexplored and relationships only superficially probed.
It's a shame because there is material here to appreciate, starting with the film's undeniably fascinating subject. Biologist-turned-sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) helped usher in the sexual revolution with his influential/infamous books "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953).
The Indiana University professor did it in an era before scientific studies had been applied to sex. The picture does a fine job depicting how naive people were about such matters during the Roosevelt/Eisenhower years. According to the movie, oral sex and female orgasms were complete mysteries among the masses, and anything beyond the missionary position was often considered medically unhealthy.
Such lack of knowledge must come as a shock to those raised during the Clinton administration.
By challenging this widespread ignorance with the cold, detached technique of a man who had formerly studied gall wasps, Kinsey was able to change the way sex was viewed. And, of course, he was branded a pervert, atheist and Communist because of it.
Liam Neeson ("Gangs of New York") portrays Kinsey with the kind of impassive confidence he brings to most of his roles. A more charismatic performance might have lifted this movie beyond the confines of its script (just look what Jamie Foxx did for "Ray"). Instead, you have a stoic, introverted actor playing a stoic, introverted character. It's a by-the-books performance that never quite captures the soul of the man.
Kinsey ** 1/2
Biologist-turned-sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is probed in this well-crafted though somewhat sterile biopic. Liam Neeson portrays Kinsey with the kind of impassive confidence he brings to most roles, and the coldness of this main character rubs off on the earnest project as a whole. If only the movie were a little "sexier."
The supporting cast fares better. The always-watchable Laura Linney ("Mystic River") stars as Kinsey's virginal wife, Clara, a former student whose disastrous wedding night helped coax the professor to shift his attention from wasps to humans. Needless to say, she more than warms up to the unconventional methods used in the ongoing research.
Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell play Kinsey's buttoned-down pack of assistants. The team had to interview thousands of people using Kinsey's comprehensive list of invasive questions ("At what age did you start masturbating?"). Along the way they get caught up in some of the more permissive aspects of the job, even indulging their boss in his latent homosexual curiosity.
Of the three, only Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry") really registers as a personality. Again, it's an example of the filmmakers not being able to concentrate on all the components introduced.
John Lithgow reprises his "Footloose" role as the puritanical preacher father of Kinsey. A final conversation between the two, in which we learn where the elder man's repression stems from, leads to one of the few emotional moments in this clinical film.
It's difficult to tell whether "Kinsey" wants to shock viewers or simply recreate an environment in which this material would SEEM shocking. But there's a sense that writer-director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") thinks he's being far more "racy" than he really is.
Considering its subject matter, "Kinsey" seems old hat following genuinely audacious pictures such as "Closer" and "Team America: World Police."
Alfred Kinsey is a worthy centerpiece for a movie. Yet the coldness of its main character rubs off on this earnest project as a whole. If only the movie were a little "sexier."