In a bizarre week as polarized as the national elections, Kinsey , a movie about sex, is a masterpiece, while The Polar Express and Finding Neverland , a couple of Christmas trifles for children, are so full of sugar they could rot your teeth. If this is what they mean by “moral values,” drop me off in Sodom and Gomorrah.
More about Kinsey , the stunning, exhilarating and phenomenal biography of legendary, earth-shattering, scientific sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, down below. First, the G-rated family fluff: With all the talk about the revolutionary cinematic technology with which director Robert Zemeckis “created” The Polar Express ,”manufactured” seems like a better word, since the whole thing looks canned, processed, defrostedandmicrowaved-like a frozen fruitcake. It’s a plotless cartoon made entirely by computers and based on a 1985 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg I have never read or even heard of. Neither had Tom Hanks when he climbed on the drawing board to get microchipped. But with his pal Mr. Zemeckis, he turned out two of the best movies he ever made- Forrest Gump and Cast Away -so he took a chance. Wouldn’t you? The result is everything I hate about movies today-composed entirely of digital images, animatronics, laser printers and computer hard drives, eliminating the need for actors, writers, sets, costumes, cameras, lights and anything else that gives a motion picture both its motion and its picture, not to mention its lasting sense of humanity. I miss those superior performances by Mr. Hanks that, with Mr. Zemeckis behind the camera, have made their previous collaborations so memorable. He doesn’t do much acting to speak of here. He doesn’t have to-a machine does it all for him. He does five voices, and they all sound like they’re coming from the inside of a Hershey syrup can.
A lot of techno-babble is going down about follow-the-dot camera movements and how the actors’ bodies are translated into cyberspace motion. But what they don’t tell you is that none of it adds up to much of a movie. I am probably not qualified to tell you much about what happens in The Polar Express , because I slept through great chunks of it. It’s about a little boy on the verge of growing too old to believe in Santa Claus. His little sister hangs her stocking on Christmas Eve and leaves out the milk and cookies, while her skeptical brother just sneers. Suddenly, a locomotive roars across the front lawn. Miraculously nobody hears it, including the dog. Golly gee whillikers, it’s the express freight on its way to the North Pole, carrying kids who have lost their faith! On the way, Mr. Zemeckis and a staff of computer geeks really go ape trying to dazzle us with visual effects designed for Imax screens-a lost ticket that floats halfway to the moon and back, a caribou crossing, a steep downhill glacier that turns the rails into roller-coaster tracks. At the end of the line, Santa Claus Land is a cross between the Piazza San Marco and Red Square just outside the Kremlin, with thousands of rather nasty-looking cross-eyed elves in miniature Santa outfits singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” in a slow, eerie monotone, like a 78-r.p.m. record of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir playing on the wrong speed. The technology gets mixed reviews. Sometimes the faces look real, while the expressions, reactions and body movements seem creepily human. At other times, they look waxy and glassy-eyed, like talking muffin dough. Mr. Hanks plays five of the characters-the boy, his father, a superfluous hobo riding on top of the train, the conductor and Santa Claus. The production notes also credit him with a sixth voice-Scrooge! It must still be in the computer; the only Scrooge in this theater was me.
Nothing really happens to keep a sophisticated child awake. There is no danger, no tension, no conflict. Everybody gets home in time for Santa to do his tired old chimney act. As a farewell gift, Santa presents the kid with a sleigh bell as a souvenir of his trip on the Polar Express. He loses it, of course, but on Christmas morning-wouldn’t you know it?-the bell is the last gift under the tree. Nobody else can hear it ring, but for the rest of his life, it will remind the boy (who has no name) that miracles do happen. I have no idea what children will think of all this treacle, but grown-ups may gag at homespun homilies like “The truest things are the things you can’t see at all” and “The true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.” Without a trace of real live people, you get special effects that are not special, visual talking points without personality, virtual reality that is anything but real. The Polar Express is an absurdly expensive (reportedly $165 million) video game with no sustaining human element-and even for kids, we all know how long a video game can hold their attention. Reams of copy may pour out of Mr. Zemeckis and his lab technicians to fill the columns of desperate journalists, but what it all comes down to is technical virtuosity without a heart. If this means the final death rattle for actors in the movie business, then why bother to hire a director? Just plop some nerd in a chair and let him make an entire movie on a keyboard. The result is dead on arrival. When the computer becomes the artist, there is no art.
It Never Grows Up
In a nutshell, Finding Neverland is a fictional account of the life of Edwardian playwright J.M. Barrie and the events that moved him to write Peter Pan . Grappling with a Scottish accent that comes and goes like lint in a breeze, Johnny Depp is miscast as a ruffled dandy, but he does exude the sense of a child who refuses to grow up, which is exactly what Peter Pan is all about. Stifled by a sexless marriage and in need of something fresh to fire his imagination, the unhappy writer finds inspiration one day while walking with his St. Bernard in Kensington Gardens. From his first encounter with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow with four sons, boredom turns to exhilaration and passionless despair turns to romantic hope.
Immediately drawn to the four fatherless boys, Barrie extends his hidden paternal instincts to adventurous flights of fanciful play-acting with sets and props, turning their summer garden into Wild West cowboys-and-Indians shows and African safaris. Flying kites, pretending his big scruffy dog is a dancing bear, giving them fencing lessons, he wins the affection of Mrs. Llewelyn Davies and becomes a surrogate father to her children, inviting the wrath and stern disapproval of their snobby grandmother, the aristocratic heiress Emma du Maurier (played by an aging Julie Christie) and subjecting his own wife to scandal as the London gossip mill spreads rumors that the famous theatrical genius is spending more time with the widow than polite society deems acceptable, and that his interest in the boys has a tinge of impropriety, too. While his marriage heads for the divorce courts, his inspiration peaks and the film amusingly reveals his literary sources for Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, the St. Bernard nanny, the boy named Peter who never grows up and the alligator with the ticking clock-all to the horror of his penny-pinching West End producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, whose accent is cornier than Mr. Depp’s). Barrie turns the boys into backyard pirates and even visualizes them flying through the air-contributing factors to the hit status of a children’s classic so famous that nothing in his legacy ever topped it. It’s harmless cotton candy with pleasant turn-of-the-century décor, but I admit the Disney ambiance eventually wore me out and I spent a lot of time looking at my watch. The corn in David Magee’s script is so high-dwarfed only by the whimsy in Marc Forster’s direction-that when Julie Christie’s snooty old dowager grandmother (the inspiration for the villainous Captain Hook) accuses Barrie of “trying to be some kind of public eccentric,” I’m afraid I was forced to agree.
The characters are based on real people in London’s theatrical history, and the staged scenes from the opening night of Peter Pan in 1904 have a delightful period flavor, but the facts are mired in poetic license. What really happened to Barrie was totally different from anything in this fanciful entertainment, and the tragic turn of events in the movie that teaches everyone how the power of imagination can be more redemptive than the acceptance of logic and truth is a total fairy tale. As for Johnny Depp, his popularity and appeal remain a mystery. I guess my reservations about his range and talent add up to a minority opinion. He’s not a very convincing J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland , but at least he shaved. It’s one of his rare appearances on a movie screen in which he looks like he’s on more than staring terms with a bar of soap. But when it comes to Peter Pan , I’ll take Mary Martin.
What’s Your Malfunction?
A clear contender for massive Oscars, Kinsey is the brilliantly directed, carefully structured and powerfully acted study of Alfred Kinsey, the scholarly, mild-mannered Indiana University biology professor whose two landmark postwar studies of human sexuality in men and women were the best-selling academic atom bombs that paved the way for the sexual revolution. From massive files on the history-making scientist, the distinguished writer-director Bill Condon-who explored the inner depths of Frankenstein director James Whale in his Academy Award–winning screenplay for Gods and Monsters in 1998-now illuminates the public infamy and private agony of a man who improved the lives of thousands of dysfunctional people. Mr. Condon collates mountains of material into a film of epic importance. He’s even found a unique way to do it, mixing the facts in a keenly observed narrative style with the interview techniques of Kinsey and his controversial research team.
For a man whose name is synonymous with sex, Kinsey remains enigmatic to this day. Mr. Condon sweeps away the cobwebs with intimate revelations that shock, illuminate, entertain and keep you riveted to the screen. In a career-cresting performance, Liam Neeson plays the ultimate man of reason in a world of irrational fear and ignorance, exploring the limitless boundaries of human experience-premarital and extramarital, oral and anal, homosexual and bisexual, and more. Green as grass, he spent so much of his youth terrorized by a religious father (John Lithgow) who taught him to favor mind over flesh that even on his wedding night, he and his wife were both fumbling virgins who were forced to seek professional help to overcome their hang-ups in the conjugal bed. Switching his focus from insects to the study of misguided humans rendered dysfunctional by the taboos and fear of candor that characterized the 1940′s, Kinsey set out to help people, bucking trends and challenging false theories with a research team of loyal followers dedicated to the theory that the only way to find out what people can’t do is to ask them what they’ve done already.
In the process of enriching human knowledge through scientific research, Kinsey also learned to confront his own sexual hang-ups with the aid of his assistants, Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), Gebhard (Timothy Hutton) and Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom he engaged in a long homosexual affair. (Some of these people are still alive and provided enormous insights for Mr. Condon’s marvelous screenplay.) Laura Linney is warm, witty and vibrant as the student who became his wife and partner in bed and business for 35 years, trying to match Kinsey’s sexual experiments by having an affair with Clyde herself. These people were the real deal when it came to original free-spirited bohemians. Their unorthodox research techniques caused friction among the staff members-whose wife-swapping infidelities sometimes backfired in physical violence-but their dedication and sweat resulted in the historic Kinsey reports that became the best-selling scientific books of all time. So celebrated was Kinsey that by the time his second book was ready to publish, he was labeled a Communist and a corrupter of moral values, denounced from pulpits, hounded by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I., addicted to barbiturates and suffering from heart disease. Liam Neeson is perfect in every changing reflection of this complex man’s clouded mirror. Shattering stereotypes, a dissident but delicate workaholic trying to balance love and obsession, driven by a quest for scientific enlightenment, a messenger for social change with a doctor’s enthusiasm for life, his passion is contagious. Less beautiful than usual with brown hair and colorless skin but still multi-dimensional, Laura Linney is inspiring as the proud wife and mother who watches a great man strengthening the future of mankind while endangering his own. And Lynn Redgrave will touch your soul as a lesbian whose testimony to Kinsey’s research has a life-affirming effect.
The acting is universally top-rung, the humor is cutting but never bawdy, the political agendas are progressive but non-judgmental, the frankness with which so many Americans openly discuss sex is as jaw-droppingly surprising today as it was 50 years ago. Mr. Condon wisely resisted the easy temptation to turn an already controversial subject into a veiled attack on the current divisive values of George W. Bush and the Moral Majority. Why bother? The issues Kinsey fought to illuminate in an age of ignorance still speak for themselves in an age of renewed moral censure. There will always be conflicts between the martyrs and activists who fight for progress and scientific objectivity, and the chastity-upholding hypocrites who try to stop them. The great thing about Kinsey is the triumphant way it entertains, informs and electrifies us with the highest values of traditional cinema while opening our hearts and minds with the liberating potential of human diversity. A magnificent achievement.