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Mating Games

 

Kinsey

Bill Condon, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: November 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

Bill Condon won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for Gods and Monsters, a film he also directed. In focusing on James Whale's final years (and creatively interweaving flashbacks via visions the famed director had as dementia set in), Condon successfully conveyed a sense of who his real-life subject was, without resorting to the pitfall-laden cradle-to-grave biopic approach. For Kinsey, Condon's latest stab at fictionalized biography, he plummets into the narrative abyss of trying to relay too much information in too narrow a timeframe, which ultimately just creates more distance -- not less -- between the audience and the subject.

Alfred Kinsey, of course, was the famed zoologist who published two landmark books on human sexuality: Sexuality in the Human Male (1947) and Sexuality in the Human Female (1953). Rather than concentrate on the crucial period in which Kinsey and his team set about interviewing people across America about their sexual predilections and peccadilloes, Condon delves into Kinsey's strict Methodist boyhood and how he rebelled against his father's wishes to become an engineer. We see his courtship of eventual wife Clara, gaze at photographs of their three children, and witness a party celebrating the publication of twenty years' work by Kinsey: an exhaustive taxonomy of the gall wasp -- an insect Kinsey finds fascinating because no two are alike.

When Kinsey is approached by a young couple having problems in the bedroom and is embarrassed by the lack of scientifically certifiable advice he has to offer, the frustrated scientist sets about creating a class on human sexuality. This, of course, leads to interviewing people about their sex lives, and causes a whole storm of controversy in a Puritanical country that would rather keep private lives in the closet rather than admit that sex involves more than the missionary position or the standard two-gender model.

By spending so much time and effort on exploring Kinsey's rather roundabout method of becoming a cataloguer of sexual behaviors, Condon short-changes the fascinating behavior of Kinsey and his team of researchers, who engaged in open marriages, swapping spouses, having sex with test subjects and filming all of it, ostensibly for scientific purposes. That tension arises among the players in this emotionally tricky game is inevitable, but since we're here to catalogue the scope of Kinsey's life, it's handled in a perfunctory one-scene shouting match and blithely dispensed with. Why Kinsey allowed or encouraged such clearly divisive and destructive behavior is never adequately addressed. Writing it off as Kinsey's disciplined ability to subdivide physical acts from matters of the heart, as Condon does, is too easy.

Another area where Kinsey's moral ambiguity is given a free pass comes from his 1948 interview with Mr. X, a man who has meticulously documented his entire sexual history. Kinsey faithfully records the man's sex acts, which include the molestation of hundreds of children, with calm, calculated efficiency. But other quirks are glossed over. Kinsey's famed insertion of objects into his urethra (most notably pencils and toothbrushes) is never touched upon. We do get a scene of a little blood and Kinsey admitting to his wife that he punctured his foreskin in an effort to "see what it felt like." But this dark side of the man -- be it self-hatred, masochism in the name of science, or what have you --is treated as an affectionate quirk or totally ignored.

Condon prefers instead to show Kinsey reconciling with his cantankerous father or wandering in the woods, a boy romantic enraptured by nature. Kinsey's work -- the reason for his notoriety and, by extension, why this film exists -- would have benefited enormously from a central focus, rather than just another notch on the chronological checklist.

One enormous upside to Kinsey is the cast. Liam Neeson brings the right mix of intellectual gravity and obsession to the title role, and Laura Linney proves a supportive but assertively independent complement as Kinsey's wife. Peter Sarsgaard does fine work as well as Clyde Martin, an early supporter of Kinsey's study who winds up bedding both husband and wife.

Kinsey casts too wide a biographic net, and treats its primary subject with kid gloves. Thus, rather than replicate the deft touch displayed in Gods and Monsters, Condon fumbles a chance to tell the essential story (warts and all) of one of the more interesting and revolutionary academics of the last century.

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