Hoo boy, the Red Staters obsessed with “moral values” out there are just gonna love Kinsey. With its unflinching recognition of myriad forms of human sexual behavior, its intimations of bisexuality and wife-swapping among team Kinsey, and its occasionally graphic (albeit antiseptic and not at all titillating) depictions of the act of coitus (to channel Maude Lebowski), Bill Condon’s biopic of Indiana’s famous sex statistician is the closest movie we have this year to a Passion of the Christ for science-minded free-thinkers. In fact, the film seems almost genetically designed to get under the skins of the abstinence-firsters and moralist types who’ve decried Kinsey’s studies for fifty years.
That being said, the strength of Kinsey, and what elevates it to being a better-then-average biopic, is the way it ultimately gets under everybody’s skin. Alfred Kinsey is not simply white-washed as a martyr to science and a hero of sexual enlightenment (although, in its most conventional moments, such as the last ten minutes, the movie hammers those particular points pretty hard.) Rather, Kinsey is portrayed as a man whose relentless pursuit of sexual knowledge often leads him down some troubling and morally ambiguous roads. Even the most open-minded libertines in the audience may find themselves feeling that things seem to have gotten a little out-of-control around the home office in Indiana by the end, and get extremely discomfited when Liam Neeson’s Kinsey sits down with an even creepier than usual Bill Sadler, a pedophile and sexual predator who’s taken some notes of his own.
Kinsey is at its best when it rides this razor’s edge, honoring the professor’s undeniable contributions to science and society while recognizing that his dispassionately treating sexual behavior as he earlier treated gall wasps ultimately opened the door to immense personal pitfalls, particularly for the men and women around him who had trouble maintaining such a scientific distance. Speaking of which, while Neeson is solid and Laura Linney is Laura Linney as usual, the supporting character work in Kinsey is particularly good. Special marks go to a fearless Peter Saarsgard as Kinsey’s #2 (Watch out, Ewan – you’ve got a competitor now for the full-frontal roles), John Lithgow for his bleary final scene as Kinsey’s father (which redeemed an otherwise one-note character), and Dylan Baker as the long-suffering Rockefeller Foundation point person (who must partly have been picked here for his memorable role in Happiness.)
In sum, although it ends with a rather bland huzzah for the march of science, Bill Condon’s Kinsey is for the most part an intelligent, nuanced, and multifaceted appreciation of one man’s probing (and occasionally perilous) quest to illuminate humankind’s most intimate frontier. (And as such, it’ll probably go over like a lead balloon in American Pie country.)