A good film about Alfred Kinsey could perform a positive function in the current political scramble to second-guess and roll back personal liberties. The sex surveys that entomologist-turned-bedroomologist Kinsey conducted in the mid-20th century shattered conventional wisdom about sexual behaviors, sold like hotcakes and demonstrated that many more people engage in behaviors deemed "deviant" than their public faces admit. From masturbation to incest, from premarital sex to homosexuality, Kinsey's work offers the comforting, potentially revolutionary suggestion that none of us is as weird as we feared or, perhaps, that we're all quite weird together.
Unfortunately, director Bill Condon isn't the right warrior for this fight. Best known for 1998's overly acclaimed art house mini-hit Gods and Monsters (and perhaps less so for 1995's Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh), Condon here subjects Kinsey to the Milos Forman treatment, wringing out of the sex surveyor's life story a choppy, episodic biopic that's small on soul and big on platitudes. In the process, Condon unwittingly unfurls a puritanical flag of his own a flag that takes overwrought acting as its stars and trite storytelling as its stripes.
As Condon tells it, Kinsey's quest for sexual healing springs in part from the repressive attitudes broadcast by his curmudgeonly father, Alfred Sr. (John Lithgow, in a painfully broad turn). They're attitudes Kinsey spends a lifetime trying to unlearn and overcome. As an adult, Kinsey (Liam Neeson) becomes a successful Indiana University biology professor (he's a wasp specialist) and marries the supportive Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). Happiness arrives soon after the two overcome the sexual problems posed by Kinsey's overlarge member. (Really.) The professor's popularity and openness with his students along with his contempt for the anti-sex, health-and-hygiene lectures of fellow faculty member Thurman Rice (a particularly unconvincing Tim Curry) transform him into the student body's de facto sexual counselor.
Before long, Kinsey begins teaching his own sexual-education curriculum, which in turn inspires his now-famous, far-reaching sexual surveys. In this quest, he finds an able assistant in student Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) who also awakens the good doctor to his homosexual side. Kinsey's surveys spawn a bustling organization that initially thrives, but later caves in to infighting and sexual intrigue just as the country's changing political climate responds harshly to Kinsey's work in the early 1950s.
It boggles the mind that a film about sex can manage to feel this boring. Blame Condon for Kinsey's dreary pacing: It's a predictable collection of vignettes, lacking both narrative depth and meaningful character development (the same flaw that neutered Jim Carrey's joyous performance as Andy Kaufman in Forman's 1999 misfire, Man on the Moon). Despite a couple of genital close-ups and a few good laughs (the latter generally supplied by Linney), Condon's by-the-books storytelling steeps viewers in a carelessly conservative approach to film art. Gallingly, Kinsey even goes out with the reactionary moral suggestion that "too much" sexual liberation eventually (inevitably?) undermines love.
Too much liberation, indeed. Looks like we're still in the market for a good movie about Alfred Kinsey.