The difficulty of shoehorning a messy life into a tidy narrative remains the chief pitfall of all biopics, so the best and least reductive ones, such as Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy or Tim Burton's Ed Wood, only examine a well-chosen slice of the overall pie. Director Bill Condon seemed to take this lesson to heart in 1998's funny, affecting portrait Gods And Monsters, which focuses exclusively on the days leading up to the death of Frankenstein director James Whale. But Condon widens the frame too far with Kinsey, his entertaining but superficial look at Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana University biologist turned sex researcher whose work presaged the sexual revolution. Kinsey's enormous impact—on academic study, on public discourse and private affairs, on his assistants and family, and on morality in America—cannot be squeezed into a two-hour movie without losing something, and Condon loses just about everything.
T.C. Boyle's recent novel The Inner Circle solved some of the biographical problems by filtering the events from an assistant's point of view, a strategy that worked especially well because Kinsey made himself so unknowable. A rationalist to the extreme, Kinsey believed that science needed to triumph over morality in the lab and in the bedroom, but most people have a harder time separating their emotional and sexual needs. Liam Neeson perfectly captures his enthusiasm and zealotry about sex, which he extols with the same dogmatic furor as his father (John Lithgow), a conservative small-town preacher. The film covers a lot of ground in too little time, including Kinsey's non-traditional partnership with a former student (Laura Linney), his controversial marriage course, his groundbreaking studies on male and female sexuality, and the subsequent costs of trying to beat back puritanical values. It also dips into the lives of his loyal academic disciples (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, and Chris O'Donnell), who indulge Kinsey's homosexual tendencies while scrupulously recording sex histories across the nation.
At a time when conservatives are rushing to squelch any gains in gay rights, Kinsey's story serves as a sad barometer on how little has changed, even where other forms of "deviancy" have been accepted by the mainstream. Any honest account of Kinsey's life would have to be radical in its own right, or at least frank and explicit about the ways he conducted his personal and professional life. An ideal Kinsey biopic would not be generating Oscar talk, but provoking a new discussion on sexual mores and how far society has or hasn't come in loosening its inhibitions. For a film about man who spent half his life defying staid convention, Kinsey remains as timid as a choirboy.