Maybe it’s just seeing John Lithgow reprise the over-the-top tyrannical preacher role, or the fact that Liam Neeson sports the same porcupine haircut as Kevin Bacon did 15 years ago, but writer-director Bill Condon’s “Kinsey” seems to me just a few fancy camera tricks and some interesting moral questions away from “Footloose,” that classic of ’80s cheese. Both films are bound by ropes of celluloid to the same crusader-saga framework.
The mostly true story of “Kinsey,” beyond the champion-of-freedom-hampered-by-forces-of-fundamentalism template, goes something like this: Alfred Kinsey (Neeson) is the son of a borderline-abusive preacher man (Lithgow) in the sexually repressed era when Boy Scout manuals suggest cold water as a “cure” for masturbation. Finally away from the invective of his father, the younger Kinsey cultivates a seemingly satisfying existence as an offbeat entomology professor at Indiana University who marries his student Clara (Laura Linney).
When his attempts to consummate their marriage fail, Prok (as he is affectionately known) realizes just how little is known about human sexuality. After effectively conquering their coital woes, Kinsey becomes the default counselor on all matters sexual at the staid university. In his two definitive tomes on sex in America, based on thousands of interviews, Kinsey brings out the comparative commonness of such “deviant” sexual practices as homosexuality, pre- and extramarital sex, masturbation, and oral sex. He flings America’s closet wide open, and he turns up enough skeletons in there, real or perceived, that we’re still trying to close it today.
In the process, the couple and their three assistants Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard, who winds up bedding both the boss and the boss’s wife), Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton) and Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) learn a bit about sexual liberty.
But it’s Linney who lends conviction to the storyline. The friend and intellectual equal of her husband, and the only really fleshed-out casualty of the sexual revolution, Linney’s Clara makes us love Kinsey because she does.
As he puts it, “Love is the answer, but sex raises a lot of very interesting questions.” Their marriage, almost a character with a narrative arc in its own right, is one of affection and companionship, incongruously devoid of sexual heat. The night of their marriage is awkward, painful, realistic and a little bit tender, a far cry from the cinematic assumption that everyone’s first time is graceful and takes place in moonlight with mood music.
But in another sense, “Kinsey” is all too Hollywood; everything is just a bit too pat. The characters who inhabit Condon’s narrative are variables in a standard pseudo-psychoanalytic equation. No sooner does our protagonist escape from his father’s condemning eye than he becomes a variant of the patriarch, controlling, monomaniacal and unable to relate to his own son. Worse, Kinsey’s proselytizing goes over remarkably well with his near and dear: He preaches to a wife-swapping, voyeuristic, boldly experimental choir of family and assistants. (Be forewarned that he deals not in euphemisms, but graphic, clinical, detail.)
In condensing some six odd decades into two hours, a biopic — this movie season’s format of choice, it seems — sanitizes and streamlines a figure and his lifework. “Kinsey” would be a stronger movie, at least a less muddled one, if Condon had either committed himself fully to the portrayal of the Indiana professor as a secular saint, or as a complicated, flawed man. As it is, the film is a veritable knitting needle, picking up and quickly dropping plot threads in rapid succession.
The film closes with a scene in a sequoia grove, where nature-loving, always-professorial Kinsey holds forth on the trees and makes some sweeping generalization about the importance of having roots. That’s not really a moral the story warrants, though it’s appropriately cosmic and vague.
One potential substitute: Fathers do terrible things to their sons, and not just “things” like the communication gap that exists between Lithgow’s Kinsey and Neeson’s. In one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, a frequenter of a New York gay bar tells Kinsey how his father literally branded him for his homosexuality.
Whatever its intent, the critical acclaim for “Kinsey” celebrates its graphic and frank discussion of sexuality, as if the film is somehow pushing the envelope — which shows that we haven’t come as far as we think.