Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): A Review


You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Joanna...

I think Kramer vs. Kramer must have been daring in its time, one that delved into a growing situation rarely discussed openly in American society.  Divorce now, sadly, is not the hot-button issue it once was, which means Kramer vs. Kramer now looks a little dated, its earnestness out of place.

Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) is going through some sort of existential crisis.  She needs to 'find herself', so she makes the decision to leave her marriage.  She walks out on her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and her son Billy (Justin Henry).  Ted, who has devoted his life to moving up in the advertising agency, learns that Joanna is leaving him the very day his boss Jim (George Coe) tells him he's going to get a major promotion and account.  As Joanna wryly notes, she has 'just ruined one of the five best days of his life'.

Now that Joanna is gone, Ted has to balance his work and home life.  That means doing the things Joanna did, like make breakfast, take Billy to school, and raise his son, while continuing at a furious pace up the ladder of success.  Obviously, being a man, he doesn't start out well.  He makes a mess of French toast, has trouble handling Billy, and misses meetings much to Jim's frustration.  However, over time Billy and Ted start getting into a rhythm and things are if not perfect at least less turbulent.

Ted also bonds with Margaret (Jane Alexander), the Kramers next-door neighbor and a friend to both.  Like Ted, Margaret has gone through a divorce, and Ted's initial resentment of Margaret (he first thinks she put Joanna up to the divorce due to 'women's lib') grows into a mutual appreciation for the struggles they have as single parents.  Ted even manages a brief fling with Phyllis (JoBeth Williams), who inadvertently appears nude before a nonplussed Billy.  However, fifteen months after walking out on her family, with lots of therapy under her belt, Joanna returns, and decides that she wants Billy back in her life, but under her roof.

What ensues is Kramer vs. Kramer, a custody fight where both Ted and Joanna endure a lot of intense questioning to see who should raise Billy.  It might be a man's world, but a woman has advantages as well.  Joanna wins the case, and Ted, who has been forced to take a lower-paying job as a result of his caring for Billy, is in no financial shape to keep the fight.  On their last day together, Ted now masterfully prepares Billy his French toast.  Joanna comes, but now sees that Billy would be better off (with) Ted, so she opts to let him stay. 

Kramer vs. Kramer isn't as powerful today as it was in 1979 I imagine, primarily because people almost expect divorce to be a regular change of life as getting another job or another car.  Oddly, among my social group, the majority of my friends are all still on their first marriage.  Perhaps this is a counter-revolution against my parents' generation where divorce was so prevalent that it was almost irrational to see a two-parent home.   The story runs the risk of becoming syrupy with Ted discovering that money isn't everything, but it's a credit to Hoffman that as an actor he can make the transition from workaholic to devoted father.

The film is also a pure showcase for Meryl Streep.  In just the opening, in the silence of just Streep, we can see so much of the internal conflict within Joanna without Streep saying a word.  Anyone who knew nothing of Kramer vs. Kramer would instantly know, just by her opening scene, that something was weighing deeply upon her.   What is fascinating about writer/director Robert Benton's adaptation of Avery Corman's novel is that Joanna is nowhere being a 'villain'.  She did leave her husband and child without explanation apart from that she doesn't love Ted anymore, but we also see in Streep and the screenplay that this was not an easy decision for her.  Far from it, Joanna was a woman in conflict with herself, and despite her flaws she truly wants what's best for all concerned, even if she doesn't know what exactly 'the best is'. 

Alexander, always an underused actress, has a smaller role but is also strong and sympathetic as the woman who goes from Ted's antagonist to friend.  Her scene as she is forced to testify in the Kramer case shows the conflict within both herself and between her two friends.  She obviously hates being put in this situation and tries desperately to get Joanna to see Ted is a truly changed man.

Of all the people in Kramer vs. Kramer whom I didn't like, it is Henry.  I never shook off the idea that he was indeed a spoiled brat.  Yes, I know Henry was suppose to show how being left by his mother was extremely hurtful, but given how irritating I found him (to where I was almost cheering him falling off the jungle gym) the pathos with Billy never worked for me.  Well, at least up to a point: when Ted goes back to Billy's room after their epic fight I was slightly moved. 

However, looking back at this I don't understand how eight months after she walks out on him Ted still can't get things organized.  I kept wondering, 'why doesn't he hire a part-time nanny?'  Given how the Kramers weren't poor and he was highly successful, plus how Joanna apparently didn't ask for any money, he could afford a part-time person to help in the domestic side.  Having a nanny would not have taken away from the 'message' of Better Parenting Through Divorce Kramer vs. Kramer was I think making.  Perhaps, however, this is me using my own thinking if I had come upon this situation, when the movie was trying to make me decide that a father should have his son as his top priority. 

Kramer vs. Kramer is not a bad film, far from it.  However, I don't think it is as powerful or insightful as it might have been perceived back then.  While I admire the craftsmanship behind Kramer vs. Kramer, all I could think of after watching it was that if there were such a thing as a Lifetime Men's Movie Channel, this and Brian's Song would be on constant rotation. 


1980 Best Picture: Ordinary People

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