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MOVIE REVIEW

In 'Kinsey,' knowledge is powerful

Knowing is better than not knowing.

This is the message at the center of ''Kinsey," Bill Condon's provocative, old-fashioned, hugely entertaining biopic of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey. With the fires of controversy over the man's life and work being stoked once more by self-appointed moral guardians, it's a message that bears repeating: Knowing is better than not knowing. The scandal was how much we didn't know about sex before Kinsey came along. The scandal -- and no one needs to be told that this matters in the era of the New Prudery -- is how much we still don't know.

Kinsey's two scientific bestsellers, ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953), have been blamed for a lot: the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, gay pride, the Pill, hickeys. The list is endless, because whatever sexual issue makes you uncomfortable, Kinsey studied it with enthusiastic clinical dispassion. He was an all-American crusader of a type that goes back to Cotton Mather, the crucial difference being that he felt the need to save souls in this life, through the amassing of observed data, rather than the next, through faith. And like all zealots, he was forged by his mission and warped by it. It's to Condon's credit that he shows us the seams buckling.

That said, this Kinsey is a saint, flaws and all. He's played by Liam Neeson -- Oskar Schindler, for Pete's sake -- in a performance of heart, stubbornness, and sympathy. Perhaps too much sympathy; the Kinsey in Condon's source biography, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's 1998 ''Sex the Measure of All Things," is a pricklier, more self-absorbed creature. But where a movie like ''Ray" sands off the edges of its subject's life in the interests of bogus dramatic closure, ''Kinsey" has a larger aim in mind. It wants to remind us what ignorance of one's own biology can cost a person and a society.

Condon sketches in the sexually benighted pre-World War II era with amusing and alarming touches: the medieval fears about masturbation; the fumbling wedding nights; mentions of the syphilis epidemic sweeping the country. In Neeson's Kinsey he has an earnest, socially awkward Boy Scout (literally) who rebels against a Bible-thumping father (John Lithgow) by turning to science instead of God, becoming an expert on a tiny insect called the gall wasp.

It's only with his marriage to a freethinking sparkplug named Clara ''Mac" McMillan (Laura Linney) that Kinsey starts to become an expert on humans. The couple's hard-won sexual bliss is his moment of truth; he begins to collect people's sex histories the same way he collected bugs and teaches a ''marriage course" at Indiana University that Condon plays for maximum comic impact. A lot of the pleasure in ''Kinsey" (the moviegoing kind, that is) arises from watching the staid elders and youths of our grandparents' generation get hit right between the eyes with the knowledge that there's more than one sexual position -- and that trying a few of them won't kill you.

Kinsey himself tried pretty much all of them. It has since become public knowledge that his research unit at Indiana was a hotbed of spouse swapping and sexual experimentation. There was filming, there was fiddling around within consensual limits, all excused by Kinsey's belief that you couldn't interview someone about, say, the specifics of their homosexuality without having had a homosexual experience yourself.

From a research viewpoint he was dead right, but the best parts of ''Kinsey" -- and they still don't go quite far enough -- probe the unmeasurable gulf between observation and desire. Kinsey becomes a god to his cadre of young interviewers (Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O'Donnell, and Timothy Hutton) even as he's sleeping with some of them, but it's they, not he, who fully understand the risks.

Mac gets in on some of the fun, too, and you're glad for the character's sake because Linney plays her so well, with a mischievous, intelligent kinky streak and a mournful awareness of where science will and won't go. In general, ''Kinsey" accurately depicts the bomb craters the Kinsey Reports left in the American psyche, and it arrays the forces of openness and uptightness with care, from sympathizers like IU president Herman Wells (Oliver Platt) and Alan Gregg (Dylan Baker) of the Rockefeller Foundation to horrorstruck opponents like colleague Thurman Rice (Tim Curry), even down to Kinsey's divided children (his daughters were pro, his son con).

Where Condon runs into a snag is the scene in which Kinsey and one of his men interview Kenneth Braun (William Sadler), an omnisexual amateur ''researcher" who collected data on his own experiences, which extended to animals, family members, and children. The character is based on Kenneth Green, who provided Kinsey with many statistics on child sexuality, and it's meant as a rejoinder to charges by various fringe opponents that Kinsey was himself a pedophile. And that's the problem: The scene feels forced, brought in to buttress an argument. It only raises more questions. (For answers, turn to Gathorne-Hardy's book, one of the most scrupulously balanced biographies I've ever read.)

Condon loves his old movies -- his last, ''Gods and Monsters," was a meditation on the director of ''Frankenstein" -- and ''Kinsey" is a foursquare Great Man film in the grand tradition: ''The Story of Louis Pasteur" with French ticklers instead of microscopes. It also fills the ''Beautiful Mind" slot in the end-of-the-year awards sweepstakes, but it cuts fewer biographical corners than that film, and it returns, again and again, to the pain and devastation caused by sexual repression. (There's a scene toward the end, involving a surprise cameo by a well-known actress, that brings it home in high three-hankie style.)

Is ''Kinsey" too hampered by biopic conventions? It's hard to argue otherwise as the film winds down, and as Neeson's diffident scientist is more and more beset by forces he has set in motion in society and within himself. As superbly crafted -- as good -- as this movie is, Condon never really owns up to the cloud of pessimism at its center. He's more interested in the march of social progress. If only it were that easy.

Alfred Kinsey unhooked sex from morality and guilt because someone had to if we were ever to understand why we do the things we do. He suffered in the bargain -- not for our sins but for the still-revolutionary idea that, as Kinsey tells a reporter, ''everybody's sin is nobody's sin." Aside from the look of growing distress on Neeson's face, we never grasp the details of that suffering, and it's a shame. You'd think that Condon would understand by now that knowing is better than not knowing.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Kinsey
***1/2

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