Watching “Kinsey” (Fox Searchlight) is like disappointing sex. It’s intriguing at first, certainly has its moments early on, but by the end it’s just awkward and painful. Afterwards, it’s hard to know what went wrong – it seemed so promising approaching the halfway mark, but the lack of closure, the breakdown of communication, the lack of warmth make sure that you won’t be in a hurry to see the good doctor again.
The trouble certainly doesn’t lie with the subject matter. The story of Dr. Robert Kinsey (Liam Neeson) and his pioneering study of human sexuality remains every bit as controversial today as when he was doing research in the 1940s. Kinsey got thousands of people to reveal their most intimate experiences for his study, exposing greater variances in sexuality than anyone had previously imagined. His personal life is full of eerie parallels to his work, as he, his wife (Laura Linney) and a favored research assistant (Peter Sarsgaard) embark on a journey of sexual self-discovery while exposing the conscience of a nation.
All the performers are at the top of their game; Neeson in particular adds even greater texture to a fascinatingly complex character with every scene. The bit players are great too, as the movie employs a cast of extras to stand in for the doctor’s interview subjects. Watching as these people confess every conceivable fetish is riveting, not because of how dirty or novel their peccadilloes are, but because the scenes have so much intimacy, a feature that the narrative proper sorely lacks.
The blame here must lay at the feet of writer/director Bill Condon, whose presentation is flawless throughout, but who allows the story’s structure to unravel in the third act. By the film’s end, he ruins any sense the audience might have had of characters. We start getting off-hand references to claims that Kinsey’s work is statistically flawed, that he had a drug problem and that his staff was all sleeping with each other’s wives. It’s too much. Kinsey the man and Kinsey the scientist begin vying for screen time and in the end neither is given a satisfying treatment. It’s a shame, really, because a well rounded glimpse into either side of the story would be well worth the ticket price. As it stands, you’re either better served by reading a biography of the man, reading his pioneering books on human sexuality or conducting a little research of your own.
“Kinsey” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday, Nov. 19.