Sex is a sham.
Whatever other conclusion one draws from Kinsey, the new biopic based on Alfred Kinsey’s life, it’s impossible to deny how dull sex can be when egg-headed scientists work it over. The movie is obsessive in its desire to show that sex doesn’t necessarily have to be sexy, and by the time it’s dragged naked into the streets it looks about as interesting as a spreadsheet of the periodic table elements.
This isn’t to say Kinsey isn’t riveting and compelling like a good autopsy, but meat-eating Americans with a wholesome prurient interest in sex should pass up this sometimes-stuffy film. Likewise, children who persist in believing sex to be exciting, naughty and zestful should also be chased away from this movie in the hopes of sustaining their healthy interest in the activity.
We’re talking the survival of the species here people!
Kinsey succeeds as both a biography and an intellectual history, showing how the meaning of sexuality evolved in this century. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) rose from an awkward childhood riddled with sickness and ignorance to be one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and helped transform the cultural and intellectual atmosphere in America.
Kinsey’s concepts were explosive in an age marked by conformity and stability. His studies of human sexuality in the late 1940s and early 1950s showed that perversity and deviance were not absolute terms – people’s private and interior lives show a startling amount of diversity and difference than what they professed publicly.
The film follows Kinsey through his early academic life, when his obsession was gall wasps, not sex, and shows how his romantic life was troubled because of physical and emotional problems surrounding sex. Kinsey meets his future wife Clara (Laura Linney) while teaching a college class about the gall wasp and decides to propose to her based on her intellectual curiosity and hiking ability.
Kinsey is not a romantic and Neeson plays him aloof and emotionally clumsy, a man more at home categorizing insects that exploring his own deep psychological drives. Science insulates him from experience and he can look at any phenomenon without flinching. An unlike agent of Eros, the scientist reduces sex to a mere behaviors, not a complex interrelation between subjects.
After successfully petitioning for a sex education class – limited to married and engaged graduate students – Kinsey turns to his life’s work: sexuality surveys. Embracing variation and diversity as his credo, he employs a small cadre of assistants who investigate sexual behaviors in public and, eventually, between one another. 
He tests theories of homosexuality using his own body and that of a young bisexual assistant, discussing his sexual preferences without passion or even much interest. The experiments intensify until they end in sort of pornocopia of bodies: Kinsey has sex with his male assistant, who then has sex with his wife before marrying a third woman who is seduced by another married assistant… It isn’t long until the whole gang is bonding over porn clips with all the excitement of a chess team fawning over Vladimir Petrov photos.
Neeson and Linney are excellent as Kinsey and Clara, and the film is particularly poignant when the couple begins to disintegrate under the weight of Kinsey’s sexual manifest destiny that implies every desire should be acted upon. Sex exhausts them the way drugs exhausts a junky: By using them up. On their way toward full exploration of sexuality, they burn up everything they have, including love, passion and intimacy. Without these traits, their marriage looks less like a union of lovers than a pairing of partners for a rote athletic event.
Behind Kinsey’s interest in other people’s sexual lives lies the mechanic heart of a scientist intent on chasing away any mystery in the body. Less a science of sex than sex rendered in scientific terms, his thinking seems vaguely alien, a work of autistic genius lacking clear emotional investment.
The film plays with the discontinuity between domestic bourgeois life and Kinsey’s brand of scientific libertinism. Taking on religious zeal, Neeson’s Kinsey challenges the status quo of the bedroom while retaining the basic form of the nuclear family, with its inherent power dynamics, at home. This leads to comic interchanges between he and his daughters over the dinner table as they discuss masturbation and foreplay, and also reveals the underlying oddness of this nerd’s life, where he’s integrated perversity into a pretty dull middle-class life.
Kinsey takes place in another time and place, where individuals accepted the indispensability of science in our lives. Like other scientist quacks – Timothy Leary comes to mind – Kinsey abused his power and left his field more confused than when he found it. His contributions helped those who were unsatisfied with their sex lives or who felt marginalized, but his methodology and personal history casts a shadow over his work that remains to this day.
Kinsey is a complex examination of the man, the time he lived through, and the ways he changed our cultural landscape, but it leaves sex looking bare and vulnerable. Although it sometimes excuses Kinsey as a man who didn’t understand the implications of his decisions – and glosses over the scientist’s addiction to barbiturates – it also isn’t afraid to revel in ambiguity.
In the end, trying to make sense of sex using a scientific model is like chasing shadows with a spotlight. The more you look, the less you are apt to find.


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