Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

27 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Kramer vs. Kramer” is a well-acted family drama concerning divorce and child custody. It could have been a sappy made-for-TV melodrama, but this screenplay (based on a novel) has its characters dealing with things either lightly or poorly, depending on the circumstances—just like real people. In that way, this movie is intriguing in the way it deals with the situations at hand because the people in this movie deal with them in realistic ways. That’s why “Kramer vs. Kramer” hardly steers wrong.

It begins as Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), a married woman, tells her seven-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) that she loves him. The son Billy, half-asleep, says, “I’ll see you in the morning.” One look at Joanna’s face and you know that he won’t.

Joanna is leaving her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and little Billy because she doesn’t feel like she belongs in their lives anymore. She’s unhappy. She has tried to talk to Ted about it, and even tries to tell Ted that she’s leaving, but he’s wrapped up in his work to listen. Eventually, Ted does understand and tries to talk Joanna out of it, but it’s too late.

The next morning, Billy goes into his parents’ bedroom and sees Ted sleeping alone. He wakes him up, asking “Where’s Mommy?” twice. Ted asks what time it is, Billy looks at Ted’s wristwatch and says, “The little hand’s on the 7 and the big hand’s on the 9,” before immediately asking again, “Where’s Mommy?” This scene shows that Ted hasn’t exactly been paying much attention to his son either. But Ted knows his plight and does what he can to please Billy.

He cares for the boy for 18 months. Sometimes Billy complains that something “isn’t the way Mommy does it,” Billy interrupts Ted while he’s working, Billy has an accident on the playground so Ted has to take him to the emergency room quickly, and Ted teaches Billy how to ride a bicycle. A real bond forms between a father and son. These scenes are really the highlight of the movie—furthering the relationship between Ted and Billy and showing just how much Ted cares for his son.

So when Joanna finally returns, wanting her son back, you feel something.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” made the wise decision not to tell it from the child’s point-of-view and showing us his plight. Instead, we see the plight of the parents. They make some wise decisions regarding it, but they also make not so wise decisions as well. What they both want is attention from their own son, instead of the son wanting attention from both parents. You want a movie with the exact opposite premise, see the Little Rascals short “Big Ears,” featuring little Wheezer getting himself ill so his parents will notice him. “Kramer vs. Kramer” doesn’t work that way.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” leads to the custody case in court, which from what we’ve seen should be a no-brainer. We’ve spent so much time with Ted that the movie actually seems to take his side—the kid is going to stay with him, no question. But when they call Joanna to the stand and she gives her testimony, she actually proves to have some good points about why she should be in custody of her son. That’s when “Kramer vs. Kramer” decides not to take sides, and just let the case play out with these characters. The ending of the movie isn’t predictable.

Great performances hold the movie together. Dustin Hoffman does some of his best work here, playing Ted as very normal and all the more convincing. His love with the kid, played by Justin Henry with unforced charm, comes off as genuine. You truly believe these two as father and son. Meryl Streep shows from the first shot that she’s an actress of many emotions. Watch the first shot that is just a closeup of her face as she’s thinking of leaving her son, but not truly wanting to because she loves him. You can practically sense her mind leading to a decision. And when her character Joanna gives her testimony in court, you feel the sincerity that Streep brings to the scene. Also of note is Jane Alexander, who is winning as Joanna’s friend whom Ted sometimes turns to for advice.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” is a winning movie with a talented cast and a brilliant screenplay. It’s an appealing family drama that plays itself realistically and succeeds in showing a very good portrait of divorce and child custody. They’re both tricky subjects; “Kramer vs. Kramer” pull them off.

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