Condon's movie, faithful to several texts about Kinsey (including Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's 1998 biography), may be set decades ago, but it feels as relevant as tomorrow's news. In the 1940s, Kinsey fostered a discussion that has turned into a shouting match. No longer startled by his discoveries -- who hasn't seen an episode of Will & Grace? -- we remain aghast at their implications. Kinsey, in scouring the country for stories and statistics that would provide the foundations for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (published in 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), blurred the lines between the normal and the abnormal, between the moral and the immoral.
Condon frames the first half of the movie like a Kinsey questionnaire: His story is revealed as a series of flashbacks as Kinsey provides answers to probing questions posed by his assistants, among them Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O'Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton). Their mentor instructs them in how to pose a question for maximum result: Never judge the answer, no matter how bizarre it may seem. It's advice Condon takes to heart as he introduces us to Kinsey on the campus of Indiana University, where he teaches a class about the mating habits of the gall wasp. Among his students is Clara "Mac" McMillen (Laura Linney), who fancies the professor but believes him "too churchy." Their cool courtship culminates in wedding-night lovemaking more akin to wrestling than to sex. Watching the pain on her face, and the humiliation on his, is almost too much to bear, but Condon doesn't pull back or grimace -- or judge.
Kinsey decides the only reason he and Mac are lousy at love is because no one taught them how to do it right. They've been the victims of "morality masquerading as fact," he tells her, referring to a course in abstinence and fear offered by Professor Thurman Rice (Frank N. Furter himself, Tim Curry, in a brilliant bit of casting). So Kinsey swats away the wasps and sticks his hand in a different kind of nasty nest: On the first day of his jam-packed sex-ed class, he shows his students slides of engorged penises and penetrated vaginas; the kids are aghast and enthralled, to the point of offering their own sexual histories to the professor in the name of research.
When Condon ditches the Q&A format, the movie turns flat and familiar -- one more story of a misunderstood, flawed, but ultimately heroic pioneer celebrated and damned for his work. What keeps us engaged are the performances: Neeson is remarkable as a man whose clumsiness gives way to confidence, which then festers into arrogance. Linney serves as his equal and his superior: Mac is liberated but finds that unfettered freedom in the bedroom and the classroom provides too many excuses for bad behavior. And the supporting actors are uniformly wonderful, even those in the smallest parts, among them William Sadler (as a proud pedophile who spooks even Kinsey) and Lynn Redgrave (as the woman who tells the professor his work saved her life just as he's beginning to doubt his efforts). Kinsey may indeed shock a few folks, but it's ultimately not about sex studies. It's a love letter from a director to a ghost who still hovers over us all.