Kinsey hits all the right spots.

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Nov. 11 2004 6:12 PM

Pansexual Healing

This biopic of the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey gets it right.

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Neeson disguised as Kinsey

The biographical movie is the least-satisfying of film genres, and not because biopics lack intelligence or ambition: They are often thoughtful and almost always a showcase for virtuoso acting. The problem is that they tend to lack a dramatic spine, being organized around such small matters as birth, childhood, marriage (or the want of it), the accomplishment that justifies the biopic in the first place, and death. Chronology is a reliable deadener of drama, and starting in the present and pointedly flashing back to Freudian hot spots fools no one: It's the same spread-out, superficial, literal-minded linearity pretzeled up to impress the Academy. You get some weird constructions, like Ray: a movie shaped along formulaic Oscar-bait lines, to celebrate a triumph over tragic adversity, in which the hero—thanks to honest writing and acting—is a solipsistic shithead. Form and content are rival blood types, fatally incompatible.

And then there are the glorious exceptions, like Kinsey (Fox Searchlight). I'm telling you, this one almost justifies the whole genre. The life, the accomplishments, and the drama somehow coalesce—at least they do in the hands of the writer-director, Bill Condon. The movie boils down, for me, to a single, endlessly reverberating phrase: "Morality disguised as fact." That's what Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) calls sex education in the late 1930s, as he prepares to teach a revolutionary course at Indiana University in "Marriage." The phrase is incendiary even today (especially today!), and it shapes and drives the film: "Morality disguised as fact" warps the young Kinsey as it warped his puritanical father (John Lithgow); it galvanizes the work of the scientist and pioneer sex researcher; and it ultimately consumes the man.

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Condon's structure is incisive: Kinsey opens with the mature Kinsey drilling three of his research assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O'Donnell, and Timothy Hutton) on how to pose questions for a survey of sexual habits—the survey that would ultimately involve thousands of subjects and form the core of the revolutionary 1948 study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and its female-oriented 1953 sequel. The point, says Kinsey, is to make the subject feel comfortable—because, after all, people could be shamed when they talk, as no one has talked before, about how they masturbate, how they fantasize, how they have sex. Practicing his interviewing techniques on Kinsey, Sarsgaard's Clyde Martin asks about the professor's father—the cue for a look of panic (actually, the first close-up of Neeson in the movie) and a flashback that serves as the first half of the film. Here is the adolescent Kinsey being bullied and shamed by his moralistic dad and then being drilled about the danger to one's brain if one touches oneself sexually. And then comes a nice flourish: Condon slaps his writer-director credit over a shot of young Kinsey in his sleeping bag, endangering his brain something fierce.

It should be said that Kinsey is not a masturbatory movie. It's broadly sympathetic while maintaining a clinician's conscientious detachment. From the beginning, as a researcher specializing in an insect known as the gall wasp, Kinsey fastens on the idea that individuals within species could show an infinite number of variations: In other words, there are no abnormal gall wasps, only millions of diverse little critters to be individually (and obsessively) cataloged. You get a good idea what Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) is up against when she flirts with her reclusive professor on the lawn at lunchtime: She has to justify her intrusion by pointing out that he's the only unattached male and she's the only unattached female in the vicinity.

That courtship scene, in which he ponders the significance of his students' nickname for him—"Prok," for "Professor Kinsey," and she suggests it maybe comes from the fact that they "like him"—makes you laugh while demonstrating how cut off the man is from the rest of the human race. Neeson is very deft, and very delicate, at using his stature to convey that estrangement: He's like Karloff's Frankenstein's monster with a Ph.D. This stunted giant then announces that humans are bigger, more complicated gall wasps. And in the film's buoyant central section, science gallops past the barricades erected (and fiercely reinforced) by morality: We see heads popping up on a map of the United States, each spilling the beans about his or her hush-hush practices behind closed doors. Never has the simple amassing of raw data seemed so subversively elating.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, whose wonderful, chatty biography was a source for Condon's screenplay, writes: "Kinsey felt he could only study [sex] by stripping away all but its physiological functions, first removing moral judgments, second, even harder, emotions and feelings. For both he was ideally equipped psychologically and for both he was savagely criticized." What's inspiring about Kinsey is that it never streamlines this complexity: Its protagonist is a martyr to American moralism, unfairly denounced (and abandoned by his patron, the Rockefeller Foundation) for "insecticizing American womanhood," and a selfish man whose steely exploration of his own bisexuality in the name of science takes a toll on his wife and colleagues. But if it's hard to feel much for Kinsey when he watches, impassive, as a fight breaks out over the wife-swapping within his research team, it's impossible not to share his joy as he wanders, near the end, among California redwoods with his loyal wife, ever-enthralled by the vastness of the natural world.

Kinsey is a stupendously moving film. Neeson nails Kinsey's rock-hard decency and fragile ego, and Linney abets him beautifully: There isn't an actress in movies right now who's more simply alive. Is her character the voice of conventionality? Sometimes, but it's a sensible and vivacious conventionality—a conventionality that recognizes the evolutionary value of family and social responsibility. On the other side, Lithgow brings the anger of Kinsey's father all the way into himself, lashing out with such credible sadism that the character's final shocker—while being interviewed by Kinsey for his study, an invented scene that works like gangbusters—seems like something we should have guessed from the beginning: This guy had some seriously bad parenting himself.

The movie ends with real Kinsey footage of animals (including porcupines) humping, but that's not the most subversive part. It's casting Tim Curry, Dr. Frank-N-Furter himself, as the voice of academic repression—the rival professor who disguises morality as fact. It brings us full circle, doesn't it? Isn't Kinsey, in a way, the father of the man-on-woman, woman-on-monster, monster-on-man pansexual utopia of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? I can see him now, adding his voice to the sum of all voices, singing, "Let's do the time-warp agaaaaaaaiiiin…."

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.