Sex and the '50s Guy

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Ah, those innocent postwar years, when instead of funny books on politics, the best-seller lists were headed by deadly serious books on sex. The 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and its 1953 sequel on female sexuality turned their author, Alfred Kinsey, into a star and a scandal magnet. But in a distant, Olympian way. Those were the days before TV up-close-and-personalized, and upended and trivialized, every newsmaker. Back then, the name Kinsey was a metaphor for the kicking down of America's bedroom doors and the cataloging of the dark secrets inside. The man, though, didn't emerge clearly from behind the dish and data. So Bill Condon's Kinsey, a smart social satire masquerading as a biopic, is less a gloss on a famous figure (like Ray or Che) and more a first glimpse at a modest revolutionary.

Alfred Kinsey (played with a magnificently starchy charisma by Liam Neeson) is a straitlaced Methodist who expands his pedantic passion for insects into a fascination with the eccentricities of human beings. He leaps to fame in the same way Vladimir Nabokov did, as a decorous entomologist who shocked '50s America with a high-IQ book about sex. At Indiana University Kinsey first scandalized the academic community with lectures on sex and then with his books that itemized the frequency of masturbation among teen boys and the, shall we say, animal husbandry of farmhands.

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For all those textbook close-ups of genitals it offers, and a glimpse of a fully frontal Peter Sarsgaard (as one of Alfred's aides), Kinsey is at heart a comedy of manners. It takes pains to document the midcentury naivete of the prof and his inner circle. Alfred and his bride Clara (Laura Linney) are both virgins on their awkward wedding night. But he approaches his book project with all the daring of innocence. To get data on homosexuals, he simply goes to gay bars and questions the first guy he meets. He dutifully instructs his canvassers on how to elicit honest information from subjects. And when the conversation wanders from Topic A, Kinsey, all business, barks, "Let's get back to masturbation."

As he and his team delve into the project, they start putting their findings into action. Men and women, men and men pair off for in-depth research. So do Alfred and Clara. But the prof sees the escapades simply as tutorials, unrelated to matters of the heart. "The bond we have, the life we share," he tells Clara, "sex is nothing compared to that." Kinsey's audiences will come in thinking about sex and go out thinking about love.

Condon (Gods and Monsters) could have made a bolder, hornier film, but then it wouldn't have been true to the man and, especially, his time. The movie wants to entertain and educate, not leer, about people flummoxed by participating in a revolution they had meant only to calibrate, and at that it succeeds handsomely. Kinsey is like its hero's work: an enlightening lecture on a naughty subject, briskly delivered by a nice gent in a bow tie.