KINSEY written and directed by Bill Condon, produced by Gail Mutrux, with Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell and John Lithgow. 124 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (November 19). Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Farenheit 9/11 wanted so badly to push Bush from the White House, but the true political movie of the year is Bill Condon's Kinsey.
A big, brisk biopic about an entomologist who's been dead for 50 years, it comes clothed in the thick flannel of mid-century America. In its visual style and performances it's wholesome and hearty. But unzip that flannel and Kinsey sports the hard wedge that drove America back to Bush. This is a movie about a man who believed in sex without hypocrisy, a notion that inflames the red states and challenges even the blue.
Some argue that Professor Alfred Kinsey invented the 60s, though he died before the decade even started. But his two groundbreaking Kinsey reports, 1948's Sexual Behavior In The Human Male and 1953's Sexual Behavior In The Human Female, ripped the lid off a nation secretly indulging in habitual masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital affairs and homosexuality. Apparently there was a time when habitual masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital affairs and homosexuality were discouraged.
Condon (Gods And Monsters) wrote and directed Kinsey, and carefully constructs the world of faith-based values that produced Professor Kinsey. His preacher father (John Lithgow) rails against the destructive moral influence of the zipper. A boy scout leader sublimates confusing urges by calling the teenage Kinsey to prayer.
In one of the film's standout sequences, Kinsey, now a young teacher at Indiana University, marries a graduate student (Laura Linney). Both are virgins, but their lust to consummate is thwarted by the trouble they have fitting together. Basic application of the scientific method saves the day.
Condon's Kinsey is above all a scientist, and much of the film's momentum comes from sequences in which the professor trains his team (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell) to collect case histories. Asking people questions about sex turns out to have surprising dramatic force. When Kinsey eventually turns his technique on his own father, it's one of the film's most powerful moments.
Two things add to its impact. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who's often shot for David Lynch and Ang Lee, does great work, softening the focus at the bottom of close-up frames and creating a rich, muted colour palette.
The second element is Liam Neeson. Under Condon's direction, he turns in the performance of his career. The bristling, raw-boned physicality he's always shown is here, but it's shaded with a vulnerability in his eyes. The plain-spoken, Midwestern masculinity in his voice has a similar shadow of hurt around the edges. Neeson embodies a man both inspired and warped by his times.
Late in the film, Lynn Redgrave turns up as one of Kinsey's last interview subjects. By this point he's been battered by public attacks on his work, then worn down by growing indifference. But sitting in her airy, suburban living room, Redgrave's character tells Kinsey just how much his books changed her life. This is the movie's money shot. All the seeds of emotion Condon so carefully laid throughout the film - the pride, the sense of mission, the passion to free men and women from needless repression - surge up in a surprisingly satisfying shiver of feeling.
It's a necessary scene in a Hollywood movie, especially a Hollywood movie so clearly aimed at the Oscar stage. But the thrill of Kinsey is how it turns conventional, middle-American dramatic codes to what are now subversive, blue-state ends.
It's not often that tears in a movie are so wisely earned.