Kramer vs. Kramer

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.



12 thoughts on “Kramer vs. Kramer

  1. Sorry you didn’t quite like this. As you say, the performances were outstanding but I thought this was a unique movie since it told a story of separation and “learning to be a parent” from the POV of the dad. I really felt for the characters and even sided with Hoffman’s. Yes, I understand how Streep felt trapped and unfulfilled, but I though she was incredibly selfish.

  2. I’ve never seen the film but just the fact it beat out Apocalypse Now, my favorite film of all time, for Best Picture makes me pretty angry. I should give it a shot to see if it actually deserved but I know I’ll probably just hate it for that reason, no matter how unfair it seems. Nice review.

    • I know fans of Raging Bull who hate Ordinary People, fans of Taxi Driver who hate Rocky, fans of Star Wars who hate Annie Hall, fans of Citizen Kane who hate How Green Was My Valley, fans of Goodfellas who hate Dances with Wolves, fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy who hate A Beautiful Mind and/or Chicago, fans of Saving Private Ryan who hate Shakespeare in Love, fans of The Aviator who hate Million Dollar Baby…the list just keeps going and going, on and on and on. Knowing your favorite film is Apocalypse Now, I highly recommend avoiding Kramer vs. Kramer.

      • I have a similar experience with Ordinary People, which I haven’t seen but it ticks me off that it beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture (although after reading some very positive reviews I’d be willing to give a shot). The only reason I can think of why I would want to watch Kramer vs. Kramer so I can have the right to complain that it didn’t deserve the Oscar.

  3. Are you sure you watched Kramer vs. Kramer? Because the movie I watched has Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Justin Henry giving flawless performances in a emotionally draining drama about the deterioration of the American family. Justin Henry just might be my pick for the greatest child performance of all time. Great courtroom drama too. That moment when the lawyer is yelling at Streep on the stand and the sight of Hoffman looking on in sadness. It’s simply a master class in acting. It makes me cry every single time I see it. I feel sad just talking about it.

    • The performances were great (although Meryl Streep was rather underused), but “emotionally draining”? I actually had trouble trying to care for Hoffman’s and Henry’s characters because they struck me as so detestable. I was very disappointed by this one, and I can’t seem to imagine why it was ever so huge at the Oscars.

  4. Good review. One of the best films from the 70’s and one that deserved to win Best Picture over Apocalypse Now that year. Why? Well, mainly because this movie made me cry, whereas that one just freaked me the hell out. Not a bad thing to say either, but in terms of the more effective film, I think Kramer vs. Kramer takes the cake.

    • Have you seen Breaking Away? I find it very unappreciated, and with everybody raving about Apocalypse Now and KvK in 1979, it seems to be forgotten despite its BP nomination. Of course, I didn’t dock any of my KvK grade because of this, but I love Breaking Away and really wish it had won Best Picture. It’s one of the first and greatest sports movies I ever saw, mind you.

      • I love Breaking Away. Just the fact that it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Music and Best Screenplay (which it won) proves it got a lot of respect and acclaim. Just because it didn’t win BP means it was forgotten. After all, only 1 film can win Best Picture.

        • I’m so relieved, Mark. I was afraid nobody had heard of that movie, or that my mention would bring something out from the back burner, so to speak. Dennis Quaid is wonderful in that film–I say that not having seen it for at least four years, but as my father loves bicycling, I was raised on the film for some of my life.

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