DVD Review Of Kinsey

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/27/06


  Kinsey, the 2004 biopic from director Bill Condon, was not nearly as bad a film as I thought it might be. That said, it’s not a particularly good film, either. This is the follow up film to Condon’s Gods And Monsters, and where that film, about Frankenstein director James Whale, made the good choice to focus only on a small portion of its subject’s life, this film, again, makes the predictable error of trying to be far too encompassing. It also is awash in Freudian psychobabble, trying to pin sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s sex obsession on, variously, his stern father (John Lithgow, who was woefully miscast)- who is later revealed as having suffered sexual humiliation for a boyhood masturbation fetish, his sexually inexperienced wife Clara McMillen- aka Mac (Laura Linney), and his own latent bisexuality, among many causes. Kinsey’s sex research from the middle of last century has made both it and its compiler the subject of controversy. The fallacious claims he made about ten percent of the population being homosexual have long been debunked, and serious errors he made in compiling information, as well as poorly selected study subjects is well known. However, discrediting the man’s scientific prowess has not been enough for many on the reactionary Right. Latter day myths about Kinsey’s involvement in pedophilia and child abuse in researching childhood sexuality have no basis in fact, and the person, Dr. Judith Reisman, who first made the claims in 1981, then followed up with a whole 1990 book, called Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud, co-written with Edward Eichel, was proved to be the liar. The Kinsey Institute denied the charges, Reisman filed a defamation lawsuit in 1991 against them, but, in1994, the suit was dismissed with prejudice, means Reisman cannot refile- de facto meaning her suit was nonsense. Still, many in the public will see the film either as a ‘whitewashing of the truth’ or a hagiography of a deeply flawed man and scientist.

  The film actually splits the difference, and therein lies its dullness and biggest flaw. It’s simply not a great film, but not a bad one, either. The biggest problem it has is in the casting of the large, Lurch-like Liam Neeson as Kinsey- a nebbishy man. First, no amount of makeup can make Neeson look the part, and I kept wondering why there were no American actors Condon could find for the part, since Neeson’s Scottish accent breaks through every five seconds or so, and given that he’s in 98% of the scenes it’s very distracting. The film is basically one long recounting of Kinsey’s cross-country escapades with several of his research assistants, including horny Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), and Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), who becomes Kinsey’s lover, his wife’s lover, and the lover of several other characters- male and female, only to be cuckolded by another assistant, Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton), as Kinsey apparently ran a proto-free love commune, much to the outrage of his racist and classist Indiana University rival Professor Thurman Rice (Tim Curry), who still champions the Victorian era Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde as cogent. Kinsey’s dubious research and methodology was supported for years by the Rockefeller Institute, and safeguarded by University President Herman Wells (Oliver Platt). Yet, so much of the film is so standard, and little real chemistry exists between Neeson and Linney- perhaps appropriate as Kinsey, himself, sought to de-emotionalize sex. Still, it makes for meager storytelling, because Kinsey’s tale is well-known, and rather straightforward, which is what the film is. There’s nothing bad, but nothing good, and nothing that leaves you in awe.

  The early scenes of Kinsey and his dad are almost amateurish in their predictability, and a bad screenplay can be blamed for that. The early scenes about Kinsey’s wasp research are similarly unnecessary, and dull. The film does score some points in its montage sequences, which deliberately evoke 1940s filmmaking techniques, but the makeup is pitiable. Linney and Neeson look little different as twentysomethings than they do in their fifties, and are not convincing at either age. The film also deliberately tries to play things too close to the vest, and not touch the more controversial aspects of Kinsey- an odd choice given his career was more style and controversy over substance, as later research showed major flaws in Kinsey’s approach, and over-reliance on mere anecdotal evidence, often letting clear fantasies masquerade as genuine sexual histories, especially in his first tome, 1948’s Sexual Behavior In The Human Male. His 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was deemed better than the first book, scientifically speaking, although by modern standards it is still quite crude. And while Kinsey was not guilty of the pedophilia charges, he clearly had no qualms about interviewing subjects, such as the forest ranger pervert Kenneth Braun, played by William Sadler, who was clearly engaging in bravado over his sexual escapades with family members and children. Were it true, Kinsey should have reported it, but since he did not it suggests he did not put stock in it, so why bother to record the information at all? Perhaps the worst and most self-serving scene comes near the end when a lesbian, played by Lynn Redgrave, is interviewed by Kinsey, and she has that Hollywood moment of thanking the Lord for Kinsey, for his research ‘saved my life’, she claims. It rings of too much phoniness and hagiography. The film’s end, in a forest of sequoia trees, however, is moving and poetic, especially the silent end.

  Yet, not once does the film allow the audience an in to the motivations of the man- was he a pervert, an obsessed clinician, a habitual distorter of research- and if so, why? For personal or political aims? Or was he something else? And why did his wife stay with him? There’s one scene where Kinsey’s son objects to his father’s sex obsessions, but the possible ramifications are never explored. The film is more like an insubstantial decoder ring from a cereal box, when it could have been a great wedding band, studded in diamonds. That said, the commentary by director Condon is very good, which is a relief, since it’s the DVD’s only feature. He balances real life trivia with filmic fact very well, and in an entertaining fashion that’s never didactic. The credits also have a treat with shots of copulating animals from the Kinsey archives. Overall, if you have a chance to see this film, take it in, but don’t go out of your way to see it. You’ll be disappointed. In short, it’s pedestrian, and too formulaic. And that’s the truth about the film, whatever one feels about the man. Simply forget what you’ve heard and deal with the film. Or, assume he was a degenerate, and just deal with the ‘lies’. Either way, unfortunately, it won’t leave much in your mind.

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