The most shocking thing about Kinsey, the first film from writer and director Bill Condon since 1998’s Gods and Monsters, is how shocking it actually is. Within the confines of a standard biopic (A Beautiful Dirty Mind, you might call it), Condon refuses to play it straight — which is only appropriate, since his subject was bisexual, condoned wife-swapping in the name of research, and was obsessed with the bedroom habits and hobbies of Americans who preferred their sex talk whispered, if mentioned at all. Perhaps Condon, who tells all and shows all, thinks of himself as a 21st-century Alfred Kinsey, releasing his full-frontal film to a country dominated by red states, where Kinsey would be as welcome as, well, Kerry. Those who voted issues of “morality” and “values” may take one peek at Peter Sarsgaard, as an assistant wagging his penis in the face of Kinsey (Liam Neeson), and point to the tantalizing prick as one more sign of a nation in decay. The more we lighten up, it would seem, the more we tighten up.
Condon’s movie, faithful to several texts about Kinsey (including Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s 1998 biography), may be set decades ago, but it feels as relevant as tomorrow’s news. In the 1940s, Professor Kinsey fostered a discussion that has turned into a shouting match. No longer startled by his discoveries — who hasn’t seen an episode of Will & Grace? — we’re now aghast at the implications. Kinsey, in scouring the country for stories and statistics that would provide the foundations for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (published in 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), blurred the lines between the normal and the abnormal, between the moral and the immoral, but the hero was long ago martyred — diminished, even, in the rush to hermetically seal the bedroom door once more. Now that the genie is out of the closet and being banished to Massachusetts, where is Alfred Kinsey when you really need him?
For the moment, he is alive and swell in Condon’s affectionate, warm, and surprisingly funny movie, at least till the hordes of righteousness descend upon Kinsey like locusts on a fertile field. Initially, all is not well with the lad: He lives under the thumb of a proselytizing pop (John Lithgow), who believes everything made by man leads to sin — especially the zipper, which provides “speedy access to moral oblivion.” Kinsey’s father, we discover later, has his understandable reasons for believing sex a deviant’s pastime; Condon, as tolerant and compassionate as his subject, is not beyond trying to understand how a man becomes a monster.
Condon frames the first half of the movie like a Kinsey questionnaire: His story is revealed as a series of flashbacks, as Kinsey provides answers to probing questions posed by his assistants, among them Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton). Their mentor instructs them in how to pose a question for maximum result: Never judge the answer, no matter how bizarre it may seem on the surface, but merely understand and absorb it. It’s advice Condon takes to heart as he introduces us to Kinsey on the campus of Indiana University, where he teaches a class about the mating habits of the gall wasp. Among his students is Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney), who fancies the professor but believes him “too churchy.” Theirs is a cool courtship that culminates in wedding-night lovemaking more akin to wrestling than sex. Watching the pain on her face, and the humiliation on his, is almost too much to bear, but Condon doesn’t pull back or grimace or, yes, even judge.
It is, after all, a seminal moment in Kinsey’s life and career, as he decided the only reason he and Mac are lousy at love is because no one taught them how to do it right. They’ve been the victims of “morality masquerading as fact,” he tells her, referring to a course in abstinence and fear offered by Professor Thurman Rice (Frank N. Furter himself, Tim Curry, in a bit of brilliant casting). So Kinsey swats away the wasps and sticks his hand in a different kind of nasty nest: On the first day of his jam-packed sex-ed class, he shows his students slides of engorged penises and penetrated vaginas; the kids are aghast and enthralled, to the point of offering their own sexual histories to the professor in the name of research. Clyde Martin, student-turned-assistant, offers much more: He beds not only Kinsey but also his wife, and theirs becomes an acquiescent love triangle without any sharp points.
If only Condon kept up the Q&A format, because when he ditches it the movie turns flat and familiar — one more story of a misunderstood, occasionally flawed, but ultimately heroic pioneer celebrated and, alas, damned for his work. What keeps us engaged by then are the performances: Neeson’s remarkable as a man whose clumsiness gives way to confidence, which then festers into arrogance. Linney serves as his equal and his superior: Mac has been liberated, but finds that unfettered freedom in the bedroom and classroom provides too many excuses for bad behavior. And the supporting actors are uniformly wonderful, even those in the smallest parts, among them William Sadler as a proud pedophile who spooks even Kinsey, and Lynn Redgrave as the woman who tells the professor his work saved her life just as he’s beginning to doubt his efforts. Kinsey may indeed shock a few folks, but it’s ultimately not about sex studies at all. It’s a love letter from a director to a ghost who still hovers over us all.