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Playing Doctor

Flick Chick


Published December 15, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

In a country where sex is still considered dirty, Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking research on this topic remains controversial. Conservatives have often blamed his findings during the late 1940s and early 1950s for sparking the sexual revolution that enlivened the counterculture two decades later. Kinsey, a fascinating biopic that opens December 24 at the Roxy in Burlington, has re-ignited that argument.

Right-wing Christian groups such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women of America have begun protesting the movie, which was written and directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters). Some detractors allege that Kinsey's legacy somehow ushered in AIDS, pornography and incest. They seemingly object to the very notion of exploring sexuality from an academic or scientific perspective.

Kinsey was an entomologist. He spent years studying the tiny gall wasp before stumbling into the career that brought him prominence, if not infamy: human sexology. As played by Liam Neeson, the title character is a prototypical geek professor at Indiana University. He's also a virgin until he marries Clara (Laura Linney) in 1921. Consultation with a doctor helps them solve the medical and psychological impediments that ruined their wedding night.

After informally advising students who are experiencing similar difficulties, in 1938 Alfred Kinsey launches a wildly popular "marriage course" for husbands, wives and members of the senior class. His lessons are a revelation to them. Ever the inquisitive scholar, he begins assembling their sexual case histories.

One young man, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), helps him in this effort. The two ask frank questions, prompting respondents to talk about previously verboten subjects such as masturbation and premarital relations.

In 1940, Alfred gives up the course and expands the survey. He recruits additional assistants (Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell), increases his funding with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and sets out across the theoretically puritanical nation to document what Americans are doing in bed. The answer: plenty.

While compiling data, Alfred and his colleagues also start to experiment. Their home movies, ostensibly shot for educational purposes, document copulation among themselves and with some of their research subjects. Much as Timothy Leary would later sabotage his LSD studies at Harvard by embarking on one too many acid trips, the Kinsey team begins to blur the line between objective scrutiny and orgies. The lure of forbidden fruit may compromise the requisite detachment.

Childhood demons -- particularly Alfred's brimstone preacher of a father, portrayed by John Lithgow -- periodically surface. But the younger Kinsey clings to his pioneering work at the expense of looking inward. He is so obsessed, in fact, that Clara and their three children pay a price. This family dysfunction is only briefly glimpsed, however, as a number of film critics have noted. They have also complained that the protagonist's flaws are obscured by the Schindler-like nobility Neeson brings to his role.

Despite the inherent drama of a historical figure with numerous neurotic tendencies, this is an extremely difficult story to tell. We have to like the guy somewhat to stick with him through a 124-minute journey into the libido's heart of darkness. The most disturbing scene features a pedophile (William Sanderson) who also brags about his bestiality. In real life, Kinsey was willing to examine issues of sexual deviance that are not easily addressed in an entertainment format.

Clara manages to transcend her heartache when she discovers that Alfred and Clyde are having an affair. Their ensuing menage-a-trois comes across as a very sensible choice. In this and other sequences, Linney and Sarsgaard steal the show.

Aided by Frederick Elmes' crisp cinematography, Condon relies on visual shorthand -- mostly quick cameos -- to represent the Kinsey project's detailed process of conducting 18,000 interviews; though we don't see it on screen, the survey included hitchhikers, bootleggers, thieves, "n'er-do-wells" and even Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac.

Alfred's 1948 bestseller, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, transforms him into a celebrity. With the McCarthy era in full swing, however, a 1954 Congressional investigation smears the Kinsey endeavor and even alleges that the science of sexology has some connection to communism.

In the Golden Globe-nominated film, public opinion turns against Alfred Kinsey after his second book suggests that women also have erotic urges. Half a century later, perhaps that provocative idea has once again clashed with the misogynist missionary position of so-called moral values.