"Kinsey": The man who threw the covers off sex in America

In "Kinsey," Bill Condon's fascinating biopic of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, love and sex waltz together uneasily, spinning apart and then twirling together again. It's the biography of a sex pioneer disguised as a love story, or a romance with some rather intriguing side issues, and it begins with one of cinema's more intriguing pickup lines: "I've been reading up on gall wasps."

Liam Neeson, his imposing height made greater by the addition of Kinsey's electric-shock hair, uses a slightly husky, precise voice to play this man of science, who speaks like a thoughtful newscaster. He's a professor of biology at Indiana University, specializing in the aforementioned gall wasps, when he meets and marries a student, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). She calls him Prok (the students' abbreviation for "Professor Kinsey"), he calls her Mac, and it seems like a match made in data-geek heaven — even though the wedding night isn't exactly paradise.

Movie review

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"Kinsey," with Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker. Written and directed by Bill Condon. 118 minutes. Rated R for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions. Egyptian.

Flash-forward a bit, and Kinsey's academic interest in sex has become piqued: Humans, he notes, are just bigger, slightly more complicated gall wasps. Married students begin to come to him with hesitant questions, and he's appalled by their lack of knowledge — they've been taught, he thunders, "morality disguised as fact." (Tim Curry, amusingly cast as an unsubtly ignorant hygiene teacher, skulks about giving bad advice.) Research begins, a team is assembled, a groundbreaking book is written — and, with the publication of "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" in 1948, the way America talked about sex began to change.

Condon, the talented writer/director of "Gods and Monsters" (which also chronicled a real person — director James Whale — of whom our memory is now faded), frames his story with a number of one-on-one interviews, intended to convey the strange mixture of clinical distance and intimacy that Kinsey and his team employed. "Let's get back to masturbation," intones Neeson to a subject, in the same tone with which he might offer a cup of tea. Things occasionally get a bit cluttered with such a rich life to examine (the flashbacks to Kinsey's childhood get short shrift); but Condon's screenplay, for the most part, intelligently suggests rather than tells.

In its depiction of a man who attempts to examine sex outside of morals, "Kinsey" does deliver a bit of moralizing of its own. Sexual freedom, in Kinsey's marriage and in the notoriously "open" marriages of his team, results here in little happiness. In one beautifully played scene, Kinsey, who's been unfaithful, tries to explain to Mac that sex is separate from love. His weeping wife isn't buying it. "Stop using science to justify what you've done," she sobs.

But Condon is also careful to show us characters, such as the interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave, whose lives have been transformed in a positive way by a more honest sexual climate. Kinsey the man, as depicted here, was careful to look at all sides of an equation; so is "Kinsey" the movie.

Ultimately, "Kinsey" comes down to Prok and Mac, a prickly, not-always-likable but profoundly believable couple going through their own sexual revolution and living to tell the tale. In the end, they walk in the woods, still enthralled by the natural world that first drew them together. "It's impossible to measure love," the man who helped America understand sex tells his wife. "When it comes to love, we're all in the dark."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com