Movies for adults—not to be confused with adult movies—are few and far between these days, so one is grateful when serious fare comes to the local multiplex. On the very serious and all-consuming topic of love and sex, the season just past featured three such movies: Kinsey, Closer, and Sideways. All three attracted a good deal of attention, were in the running for industry awards, and drew comment from critics impressed not only with their qualities as movies but with what they had to say about the way we live now.
Kinsey recounts the life of a man who became, for a spell, perhaps the most notorious figure in America, and certainly the most notorious professor of all time. As one learns from published biographies, Alfred C. Kinsey (1894-1956), the author of the best-selling volumes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, presented himself as a model of scientific detachment, a taxonomist who had examined and categorized the sexual proclivities of mankind as disinterestedly as he might the mating habits of the gall wasp—on which he had become a world expert during his earlier career as an entomologist.
But Kinsey’s research was not without its moral lesson, which subsequent generations have absorbed into their very marrow—namely, the supreme value of diversity in sexual behavior as in other natural phenomena. As Kinsey professed to show, so many people were so kinky that the very idea of normality was a misconception, if not a pious fraud. The only perversions, he instructed, were abstinence, celibacy, and late marriage—though why he should have considered these to be perversions rather than further manifestations of diversity carries us into the murky region of his own personality and needs.
The movie, written and directed by Bill Condon, does venture into those depths, but chiefly it accepts Kinsey’s own estimation of his moral heroism, explaining his peculiarities in that light. The principal malefactor in Kinsey is, in fact, normality, sucking the joy out of life, making people fear and despise their own natures, inevitably giving rise to hypocrisy. Early in the movie, as the adolescent Kinsey and a handsome comrade stand on the wooded shore of a lake—nature in its glory, fish spawning, sap rising—our young protagonist confesses that he sometimes gives in to untoward urges. The youths’ Boy-Scout vows come to the rescue; the two of them kneel and pray the carnal demons away. In the next shot, Kinsey is seen masturbating in his sleeping bag as though going for the world’s speed record.
Even more laughable than Boy-Scout morals is the mad piety of Daddy. Kinsey senior (played by John Lithgow, clearly enjoying himself) is an anti-sex maniac, raving against the zippered fly, which renders fornication all too easy. As his father lectures him on the evils of the flesh, young Kinsey listens impassively, or begins not to listen: rationality and skepticism are making their debut, and the future gleams on the horizon. Many years hence, the adult Kinsey (Liam Neeson) will even be able to forgive his father’s demented religiosity upon learning that, at the age of ten, old Senior had been grotesquely punished by his parents for touching himself in unholy fashion.
What has saved the adult Kinsey, and by extension the rest of us, is the combination of science and hot loving. As a twenty-seven-year-old researcher, cloddish, solitary, virginal, he has become Indiana University’s foremost bug man when his student Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) decides she has to have him. Condon presents Kinsey and Clara as representative denizens of the biosphere, human animals enacting a mating ritual after the manner of the birds and the bees. When, after the marriage, nature proves cruel and the sex excruciating, the impediment (Clara’s hymen is unusually thick) is soon taken care of by a little surgery and the sex turns delicious, abundant, and various.
Prok and Mac, as everyone calls them, are transfigured, and in time the professor sets out to share his newfound wizardry. Initiating a human-sexuality course for the edification of Hoosier youth, he embarks on his lifelong project of collecting sexual histories as he once did gall wasps. But he still has a lot to learn, which one of his graduate-student assistants, the pansexual Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), will teach him. Once Kinsey’s latent bisexuality is activated, it blooms as luxuriantly as his beloved garden. Obligingly, Martin fully activates Mac as well, who has been drifting into a sad sexual dormancy.
It is true that a wrench gets thrown in the works when, in line with Kinsey’s teachings, his young assistants engage in some casual wife-swapping and one of the wives falls distressingly in love with her seducer. That is not supposed to happen: Kinsey has to separate his brawling acolytes, reminding them of their duty as scientists and moral trailblazers, bold and free and non-judgmental. But in general Liam Neeson’s Kinsey tends to be blissfully obtuse about the emotional rampaging his work sets off. Dying in 1956, he did not live to see its longer-term effects in society at large.
That works to the advantage of the director, for whom moral lucidity seems to be an exceptionally tricky business. Condon, who may be the foremost practitioner of the gay-uplift movie, has made a name by courting heterosexual sympathy for the homosexual and bisexual plight. His 1998 critical success, Gods and Monsters, was about the emotionally labyrinthine relationship between James Whale, a retired gay director of classic horror movies, and a hetero beefcake gardener. Like Gods and Monsters, Kinsey purports to show how heroically torturous it is to be homosexual, and how heroically decent to be accepting of sexual natures different from one’s own.
In trying to make Kinsey appealing to mainstream audiences, however, Condon has had to enhance his protagonist’s life, adding here, bowdlerizing there. Clyde Martin did not in fact seduce Kinsey; Kinsey seduced Martin, as one learns from James H. Jones’s Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (1997). Condon has generally ignored Jones’s severely critical work, basing his movie instead on Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s far more congenial Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things (1998); but on this point he departs even from Gathorne-Hardy. For him, the seducer must become the seduced, since we are supposed to see Kinsey as a sexual cripple, raised from victimhood by a benevolent touch just as his own work will raise legions of other victims. It would not do to depict Kinsey as man enough to go after what he wanted, especially when what he wanted was lots of sex, mostly with other men.
Among the types of sex that Kinsey wanted, some do not make it to the screen at all. He was given to inserting foreign objects into his urethra, most notably a toothbrush, bristle end first. He would wrap a belt around his testicles and see how tightly he could pull it; once, he looped the belt around an overhead pipe and dangled there by his privates. Gathorne-Hardy acknowledges this, though he does not condemn Kinsey for it; Condon passes over it in silence. And who can blame him? The cause he advocates would hardly be well-served if one of its founding fathers were to prove a creep.
Which is not to say that Kinsey is simply sexual agitprop; there is just enough ambivalence about Kinsey’s character and achievement to lend the film some moral interest. But it does not compare in intelligence with even so modestly accomplished a novel as T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Inner Circle (2004), which better comprehends the devastation that Kinsey’s brand of sexology, infiltrated by his obsessive priapism and voyeurism, visited upon his devotees, and in later generations upon the very idea of love.
Mike Nichols’s Closer inhabits the world that Kinsey helped to make—the world in which everything sexual can be freely thought and spoken and acted on; and Nichols sees what this has done to the idea of love. Indeed, the movie, whose script was adapted by Patrick Marber from his hugely successful 1997 play, demonstrates what can happen when enthralling and anonymous encounters somehow lead to love.
The opening scene is brilliantly done. From the pedestrian multitudes of a London street the camera selects two beautiful people: a young man, played by Jude Law, looking drab and diffident in the English way, and a jaunty knockout, played by Natalie Portman, with carmine hair and a mien of waifish abandon. As the camera cuts from one to the other, it becomes apparent that they are advancing from opposite directions, looking only at each other, and starting to smile as they come closer. Then shock ripples across the man’s face, and we see the woman lying face down in the intersection, where a cab has hit her. The man goes to her aid. When she comes to, she says, with woozy allure, “Hello, stranger.”
Their encounter causes a multi-car pileup and endless emotional carnage. The man and the woman, Dan and Alice, will of course become lovers, and will try to make a lasting connection out of their chance meeting; but they will remain strangers, and the distance between them will rage like a wound. A year later, Dan, now living with Alice, is about to publish a novel based on her life, which has included stripping in nightclubs. But then he falls in love, at first sight, with Anna (Julia Roberts).
An American like Alice, Anna is a photographer who is taking Dan’s picture for the dust jacket. But, after meeting Alice and measuring the depth of her feeling for Dan, she fends off his extravagant importunities. Some months later, in a hilarious scene, Dan logs on to the website London SexAnon, pretends to be a nymphomaniac named Anna, and snares a dupe, Larry the dermatologist (Clive Owen). Larry duly goes to the London aquarium for an assignation and there meets . . . the real Anna, who has previously confided to Dan that she loves to go watch the fish. Larry and Anna of course fall in love, and marry. But in the meantime Anna has also fallen madly in love with Dan, and their affair wrecks both the marriage and Dan’s romance with Alice.
That’s just for starters. Betrayal and retribution ramify until everyone is raw and bleeding. Portman’s Alice suffers most vividly, and Owen’s Larry is most adept at dishing out malevolence. Their portrayals, which earned each of them an Academy Award nomination, are harrowingly alive; their erotic power—or rather the erotic power that controls them—glistens like a Doberman’s bared teeth. By comparison, Law’s Dan and Julia Roberts’s Anna are emotionally drawn and pallid; little more than their looks and their status as artistes recommends them as objects of desire, and that barely suffices.
Closer shows the savagery with which apparently decent people want what they want, and the desperation that follows when they fail to get it. What they want above all are maniacal sexual heat and the truest intimacy, which do not come readily in tandem. In Nichols’s psychologically gruesome Carnal Knowledge (1971), an Amherst boy and a Smithie in the first flush of desire presume the supreme intimacy: “You know everything.” “I know you.” “I know you.” In fact neither knows the first thing about the other, and their lovemaking will plunge them into an inescapable welter of deceit, manipulation, and loathing. Closer is Nichols’s crueler and angrier updating of Carnal Knowledge.
Love’s fall from innocence, brought on by the desire for true knowledge, is an old, old story, from which Marber constructs a very modern erotic theology. In a bizarre way, God Himself might be said to preside over Dan and Alice’s meeting. On seeing that Alice was only slightly hurt, the cabbie (or so Dan tells her) said, “Thank fuck, I thought I’d killed her.” The startling locution is more than a Mametism: under the new dispensation, sex is the Alpha and the Omega. Nor is this the only piece of religious allusion in Marber’s screenplay. In the hospital waiting room after her accident, Alice eats an apple from Dan’s backpack. Larry speaks of the initial rush of romance as paradise.
But paradise becomes ever grimier as knowledge deepens, until it starts to look like hell. The men claw and tear at their women in order to know what the women would prefer to conceal from them, and when the women tell, the men are undone. In the lovers’ terrible infighting, the unspeakable is spoken again and again. When Anna tells Larry she is leaving him for Dan, he rips into her with laconic obscenity like a madman with a meat-axe; he needs to know every sexual detail, and she complies, wanly at first, then with gathering heat, subtle malice, even pleasure. Similarly, the strip joint where Larry happens upon Alice after the couples have split apart has rooms for private viewing called “paradise suites.” In one of these, Alice strips for Larry—Portman stalks him like a tigress and struts like a majorette—but reveals nothing of herself. “What do you have to do to get some intimacy around here?” Larry howls at her and at the security camera on the ceiling. Like Carnal Knowledge, Closer demonstrates that carnal knowledge is not knowledge at all; it is rather an initiation into scalding doubt and an awful need for the kinds of truth that one would be better off not knowing.
The final vision of Alice completes the first. In the last scene of Marber’s play, it is revealed that Alice was killed in Manhattan, hit by a car when she barreled with characteristic heedlessness into the street. The movie ends very differently. Alice is walking blithely amid a New York rush-hour crowd; men’s heads swivel to check out this luscious young thing as she strides past. The hunt for love, or something like love, continues, and Alice, rare and splendid, is clearly primed for the next thrill; one already pities the next man she will collide with, and pities her as well.
Such strange ambivalence marks the entire film. This is a world where sex has no limits; in the sexual marketplace, there is an orifice or appendage available to satisfy every desire. Yet amid the rutting chaos, people still hope for love. Marber and Nichols have rendered this desperate predicament with lacerating indignation and tender sorrow.
Had they taken the same care in creating living characters as in deploying artful language and camera work to elucidate great themes, this would have been a nearly perfect movie. Even as it is, Closer is remarkable. Although leading critics have complained that it “collapses into a welter of misplaced intensity,” or that “it’s all dressed up but it’s got nowhere of interest to go,” and although audiences may find it dismal or even toxic, Closer reveals what has become of our appetites and yearnings better than any other movie I can think of.
But the film that everybody has really loved this past year is Sideways. Directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor, it won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and was nominated for best picture. Taking as a given the psychic damage done by a culture in which promiscuity, adultery, and divorce are becoming the norm, it nevertheless holds out the hope that wounds can be healed and true love grasped. Who would not want to hear such news?
Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Californians who appear to have seen the dark side of forty, are off on a weeklong road trip to the wine country on the eve of Jack’s wedding to an Armenian-American princess. Each of the partners in this two-man bachelor party is perennially feckless in his own way. Miles, an eighth-grade English teacher, still nurses a dim hope of seeing his long, heavy novel published; inveterately despondent since his divorce from Victoria, brought on by his adultery, he has not laid hands on a woman in two years; a fanatically expert judge of wine, he appears headed for alcoholism. Jack, an actor who once starred in a soap opera, now mostly does voice-overs for commercials. He has no trouble attracting women, and serious trouble resisting them.
Miles sees their trip as a perfect opportunity to initiate Jack into the rich and subtle pleasures of wine; Jack sees their trip as the last chance to add to his sexual scorecard before marriage shuts down his act. With comradely solicitude, Jack promises to help his friend “get [his] bone smooched” as well, but Miles declares himself averse to casual smooching. Although he is plainly desperate for action, he still dreams of re-connecting with his ex-wife. And so, when Jack informs Miles that Victoria has remarried and will be coming to the wedding with her new husband, Miles goes forlornly berserk, tearing down a steep hill into a vineyard, chugging a bottle of wine. A subsequent close-up shows Miles’s hands cradling two bunches of grapes, his fingers running lovingly, miserably over them as though caressing a woman’s breasts.
Fortunately, consolations present themselves. Jack picks up Stephanie (Sandra Oh), an Asian-American wine pourer who has a motorcycle and a small Afro-Asian daughter and an extravagant craving for sex. Miles, thanks to Jack’s dogged exhortations and some politic lying about his novel’s imminent publication, hits it off with Stephanie’s good friend Maya, a waitress and graduate student in horticulture, recently divorced from a philosophy professor. She is wondrously lovely, appreciates wine even more rapturously than Miles does, and lives amid floral beauty like one of the Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera, a figure the actress Virginia Madsen could have posed for in her prime.
But now autumn is coming in her beauty—her cheeks and forehead beginning to look raw-boned, the lushness of youth being honed away—as it is in the faces of all four revelers. Their joys are shot through with sadness, and the sadness will rip its way out with an unpleasant comic edge. After a night of lovemaking, Miles inadvertently lets slip to Maya that Jack is getting married on Saturday; Maya stalks off, feeling soiled. Stephanie, to whom Jack has pledged his love and who loved him back, caves in his nose with her motorcycle helmet.
It looks bad for the boys, and gets worse. Miles’s agent tells him his novel has been definitively rejected; he insanely dumps the contents of a spit bucket over himself at a wine tasting. Jack bunks down with a fat girl, and the boys barely escape havoc from her behemoth husband. At Jack’s wedding, Miles talks to the pregnant Victoria; he attempts to smile, but his lips peel distressingly away from his teeth and get stuck in a grimace, making him look like a small animal cornered and terrified. A remarkable scene follows, as Miles takes his most prized bottle of wine to a fast-food joint and drinks it with his burger, furtively. There is a certain cerebral pleasure in the act, along with the knowledge that a future of loneliness stretches before him.
Had this movie been worthy of the praise it has received, it might have shown its characters learning to live with the sadness of irredeemable mistakes. Payne has previously made such a movie: About Schmidt (2002) draws a bead on a retired Omaha insurance man (played by Jack Nicholson in his most subdued performance) whose apparently safe choices in love and work have turned on him; his struggle to come back to genuine life will find him overmatched, but he fails like a man, and his sadness is bracing. Audiences and critics alike found About Schmidt a downer. As if to compensate, Miles, in Sideways, is made to enjoy a typical movieland triumph: Maya leaves a message on his answering machine, saying she loved his novel, and telling him she hopes to see him when he’s in town. The final shot is of him knocking on her door, an adolescent fantasy coming true. Sideways is about the sort of adolescence that these days persists into, or resurfaces in, middle age. In performances that could hardly be bettered, Giamatti and Church (the latter, like Madsen, earned an Oscar nomination) are two teen archetypes gone long in the tooth. Miles is moping, snarky, guarded, demonstratively pained, sexually hapless, and utterly self-absorbed. Jack is ebullient, indiscriminately horny, comically insufferable in his openness, and utterly self-absorbed. Jack has behaved like a kid all his life; Miles has taken a shot at manhood and been scorched. Thus a goddess ex machina is required to rescue him from the predicament he has wormed his way into. Through her intervention, every great thing is possible, just as though he were still fourteen.
One is tempted to say that Sideways is superb until the final minute, but in fact one could smell the Hollywood ending coming a mile away. A movie that could have been extraordinary finishes as a sop to grown-ups who find growing up rather more than they can handle. (This is true of the boys, at any rate; the girls are endowed with every desirable human quality in the book.) Perhaps playing upon a latent desperation in its audience, Sideways ends like a Molly Ringwald movie to soothe the incipient-geezer set.
For most Americans, sex and love will never be anything like what they were for previous generations. So these movies tell us in their various ways. Old-fashioned virtue survives in bunkers. Normality has become aberrant, and must resist a prevailing coarseness that even Kinsey could not have foreseen, though he would surely have embraced it. The serious artists working in Hollywood, who include Patrick Marber and Mike Nichols and, at his best, Alexander Payne, have begun to recognize the full effects of 21st-century mores, and their work is worth attending to for news about our most intimate lives. It would help if more moviemakers looked even harder, and declined to flinch.