Bottom Line: Great performances unable to redeem the seen-it-all-before factor.
Directed by: Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, George Coe, Howard Duff, Jane Alexander, JoBeth Williams, Justin Henry, Meryl Streep
I enjoy dramas about dysfunctional families just like I enjoy dramas about historical figures. If there is something unique and worthwhile the film has to offer, count me in. If it’s just another addition to the pile, count me out. Kramer vs. Kramer was first released in 1979. It wasn’t the first film centering on a dysfunctional family, and it certainly wasn’t the last; nor was it anywhere close to the greatest. Ordinary People (1980), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Descendants (2011). The list goes on and on, but when I imagine such films, those three are the first to come to mind. Not only do they offer outstanding performances, they offer great, unexpected surprises and alterations to keep us entertained with a story about as old as Methuselah. Kramer vs. Kramer, despite remaining one of the most recognized and praised films of the 1970s, only ventures halfway. Although such marvelous acting ability is worthy of praise and makes the film watchable, in no way does it redeem the film’s overwhelmingly submissive faith to convention.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) has been married to his Mrs. (Meryl Streep) for eight years. He is under the impression that they are happy: they have a young son, he works hard, and he’s out of the house all day. It’s not until Mrs. Kramer leaves him that Ted experiences a significant epiphany: he cares about his wife and son just about as much as we care about him (not very much at all), and he’s working all day for no one other than himself. How ironic that the only admirable character presented is not only supporting to the plot, she barely shows her face until the film’s latter half. How ironic, as well, that such conventional storytelling doesn’t follow along with the one, crucial “must” in a story: clarifying who is the hero. Mrs. Kramer makes a valid and agreeable point when she confesses to Ted that she feels too much a mother and a wife, and not enough a woman of independence. If only she had confessed this upon first leaving Mr. Kramer, the characters would be more likable, and the story less apathetic. Instead, the story plays out as a misadventure. Ted Kramer fails to bond with his spoiled, bratty son, so he tries further utterly dim-witted methods of doing so. Hoffman’s performance is the single quality that stabilizes the plot away from screwball comedy territory, as his character struggles with not swearing, not drinking, learning how to make French toast “the way Mommy does”, etc. Suddenly, Mrs. Kramer meets up with her husband and informs him that she has been watching (???) him commit his sins of parenting. She declares her desire for custody, which lands them both in court (???).
Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t a bad movie. Most of the film’s flaws can be pointed out in the script. The narrative is as about as simple as the old “why did the chicken cross the road” anti-joke. We can all respond to it by heart, it’s obvious, and it can be boiled down to less than fifteen words. What’s the point in stretching such few words out to a two-hour film? If there were a point in doing so, we would surely see a lot more of “Based on the six-word novel by Ernest Hemingway” in films’ opening credits.