Kinsey, Closer, and Vera Drake (review)

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Sex Sex Sex Sex Sex

Oh, and penis vagina gay straight top bottom fun love ecstasy sweaty hot lickable delicious, with a nod to my brother-in-spirit Mark Morford.

There’s a moment, toward the end of Kinsey, when the sex researcher — by this point half-renowned, half-reviled — is giving a lecture about the disconnect between public morality in the United States and the private behavior that all the preaching and haranguing in the world isn’t going to change. (C’mon: Who doesn’t love orgasms? Who isn’t getting nowhere near enough of them?) While Kinsey rants passionately, a middle-aged couple stand up and stalk out, looking like they’ve smelled something bad.
That bit made me snort, shake my head, and wonder just what the hell is wrong with people anyway. This attitude — that if we don’t talk about things, they don’t exist — is the same one that drove all those groups with “Family” in their names to protest Kinsey the film, but pretending that Kinsey and his work never existed, never had any impact upon our culture, is about as effective as pretending that any sex apart from heterosexual missionary-position quickies on Saturday night with the lights out doesn’t exist, either. You have to wonder how all people ended up with “Family” in their club names: surely they’re not all doing it through a hole in the sheet, right?

Probably they’re pissed at Kinsey cuz he demonstrated — with facts and figures and statistics and boring unsexy stuff like that to back it up — that hardly anyone is doing sex the way we’re “supposed” to, so that all we end up with all kinds of guilt and uptightness about things that are normal anyway, but the “Family” people think that is the proper response because they want to define “normal” rather than, say, letting reality define it for us. And they’re pissed at Kinsey, maybe, because it shows how, once the man got past his terribly repressed Methodist upbringing — John Lithgow (Shrek 2, Don Quixote), as Kinsey’s preacher father, paints an acutely sad portrait of a man so buttoned-up he can barely breathe — he started having all kinds of great sex, plus started getting interested in just what kinds of great, bad, or indifferent sex everyone else was having. In a scientific way, of course. Someone was going to do this eventually — might as well rail against little kids asking why the sky is blue or astronomers trying to find out just what the hell dark matter is, anyway. The film mostly ignores the issues of data fudging and the like that have hounded Kinsey’s research, but the irregularities that may exist in his work are nothing compared to how he dared to defy prudity and puritanism and societal convention, how he launched a revolution — if inadvertently — against inhibition and enforced ignorance. Whether he ended up being 100 percent scientifically accurate or followed all the right rules isn’t the point of Kinsey, or of Kinsey. The point is that he thought to think about these things at all.

Oh, and also, the point of Kinsey is that Liam Neeson is totally hot even as a dorky, repressed zoologist who likes bugs better than people.

If they could get past that “smashing socially dictated ignorance” thing, the “Family” people would see that this is not just a movie about being frank about how masturbation will not, in fact, make you go blind (my vision is still 20/20, at least), it’s also a funny and tender depiction of people trying to figure out the sex thing without going crazy or feeling like complete idiots. Oh, wait, the “Family” people want us to feel like complete idiots about sex… Well, for the rest of us, there’s so much that’s surprisingly tender and sweet and awkward and lovely here, like how society on the whole figuring out that sex isn’t such a bad thing after all is a giant metaphor for how we as individuals figure this out, cuz even for someone like me, born after Kinsey and after the Pill, there were still centuries of shame and mortification and such to get past. (Kinsey needed to do another study about how coming of age with AIDS in the foreground was a real passion killer; forget nice-girls-don’t and killing your reputation; now sex could kill you for real. Sheesh. Man, this sex stuff is complicated when it should be so easy…) The scene in which Neeson’s (Love Actually, Gangs of New York) Kinsey and his new wife, Clara — played with the usual ascerbic sensitivity by Laura Linney (p.s., Mystic River) — first try to make love is so painfully clumsy that you cringe in sympathy for them. There’s was no realer sex scene on film in 2004.

I’m sort of surprised that the uptight “Family” people didn’t get their panties in a bunch over Closer, cuz it’s about precisely what they complain (and not entirely without justification) is the result of our overly sexualized culture: people who seemingly have never encountered the magic of passion, who are clueless about romance, and who can’t even have a good meaningless fuck, for fuck’s sake. (The “Family” people might not put it that way, but that’s what they’re saying, even if they don’t realize it.)

Man, you’d expect a movie with this much sex talk in it to be, well, sexier. That’s ostensibly the point, probably: Look how cold contemporary relationships are! Certainly Jude Law (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator), Julia Roberts (Mona Lisa Smile, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Clive Owen (King Arthur, Beyond Borders), and Natalie Portman (Garden State, Cold Mountain) are lovely to look at and more than up to the task director Mike Nichols (Primary Colors, Wolf) sets before them, sliding through their sleek London lives, cheating and lying and hurting those they purport to love. Those of you who know my history with Julia Roberts may not believe me, but I’m delighted to see her playing a real woman, as fucked up as she is, and she’s actually really good here — I’d almost do her, she’s that good. Jude Law is as incomprehensibly godlike as always, not that he’s not a seriously amazing actor to see ply layers of messy reality but you just can’t believe that men that look like that actually exist. And of course Natalie Portman is so delicious you want to eat her up, though I think she’s even better in Garden State, but she doesn’t get nearly naked in that one, so here she can be cheered for her bravery and dedication to her craft here when really it’s just about you going oh my god she’s gorgeous when she’s slinking around in those fuck-me heels and nothing bikini things that make even a heterosexual gal want to be naked next to her. Clive Owen just can’t help being combustible, and why doesn’t he get to be nearly naked? That’s so unfair to us straight gals. Why should Natalie be almost naked when Clive isn’t?

But all that said… even this incredibly impressive and unbearably sexy cast can’t keep sitting through the film from feeling like a chore. They look fabulous but they’re miserable, rotten people, and no one wants even a quick meaningless fuck with a miserable rotten person. Who wants to spend two hours with empty, unpleasant people who are unable to form a single genuine connection to a fellow human beings (and neither, by design or accident, to the audience)? One imagines that playwright Patrick Marber, adapting his own stage play, sees this as a modern drawing-room comedy in the vein of, oh, Oscar Wilde (“There is only one thing worse than coming, and that is not coming…”), full of witticism and sharp observations on how cruel people are to one another. But this isn’t a mature exploration of why adult relationships can sometimes be so childish: it’s just faux-sophisticated adults who think they’re smart doing all they can to avoid real intimacy and learning nothing at all from their romantic misadventures.

And that’s really, really tedious. You want to tell them to just grow up already.

And then there’s Vera Drake, which is the past, and the future, if the “Family” people have their way and outlaw abortion again: you’d think that it wouldn’t be possible to be both anti-abortion and anti-birth control, but there we are. These people are just anti-sex, which is like being anti-eating, and this is a reminder of what things used to be like, and will be again, if they have their way.

So Vera (the goddess Imelda Staunton: Chicken Run, Shakespeare in Love) is this kindly mother hen who wanders postwar London, helping girls who are “in trouble,” and you know what that means. What’s extremely cool about Vera Drake is that director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) kept it a secret from the rest of the cast — the actors playing Vera’s husband and grown children — just exactly what Vera has been up to all these years, so that when she finally and inevitably gets caught, they’re really actually stunned. And half of that, surely, is the stunned-ment that comes from contemplating that anyone once thought that it was okay to outlaw women controlling their own fertility. Cuz what Vera was doing was illegal — it didn’t matter whether it was a well-to-do young lady whose boyfriend forced himself on her or a working-class woman with a demanding husband and too many kids already: the law, disregarding the realities of women’s lives, said that if you get pregnant, you give birth. Period.

And Vera Drake is about nothing if not how the realities of women’s lives don’t always intersect with men’s — read: those who make the “rules” — understanding of reality. When Vera sees that a nice guy in the neighborhood isn’t eating enough, she invites him round to tea. Vera hums happily while scrubbing the floors of those so much better off than her that she can’t even contemplate living like them. And when Vera learns about a woman who unexpectedly — and un-wantedly — finds herself in a family way, she helps them fix the problem. It’s all the same thing to Vera — and Staunton, at whose feet I worship, approaches them all in the same straightforward, maternal way. But Vera is so practical that she doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the emotional aftereffects her “patients” endure — you’d expect her to be the type who’d hug a gal who’s in a bad way after Vera’s brusque, if kindly, ministrations, but she’s already moved on to the next chore. This is what life is about: Vera spends her entire day taking care of people, in one way or another — you feed people, you clothe people, you make sure everyone is warm and cozy and happy, which leaves no time to worry about more abstract things.

But Leigh, with his typical sly directness, sees more than Vera does. He knows that issues like abortion are never about morality but about money and access — though it seems at first that he is going to be drawing a typically familiar, and wrong, black-and-white contrast between lively, happy poor people and straightlaced, uptight rich folks, things don’t fall out that way, and he in fact ends up making the point that women with money have never had to worry about dealing with a “problem” — the rigmarole one wealthy girl has to go through here is absurd, lying to psychiatrists about her family’s mental health and such, but it does eventually allow her access to health care that poor women do not have. This isn’t a “pro-abortion” movie any more than Kinsey is “pro-sex” — these are pro-reality stories. Vera deals with the dichotomies that arise when we ignore reality: Vera’s way of circumventing the unrealistic approach to the world decreed by the powers that be is really no better than the workarounds the rich had… both ways are awful. And Leigh turns the black-and-white into shades of gray that convince you that pretense is useless, and dealing with reality straight on is the only way to go. If only we could get there.

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions
official site | IMDB

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language
official site | IMDB

Vera Drake
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for depiction of strong thematic material
official site | IMDB

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