Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Howard Duff
Plot: When exhausted mother (Streep) walks out on workaholic, Ted (Hoffman), he is left to balance his work life with looking after his young son, Billy.
There is something beautifully simple about Kramer Vs Kramer. You can imagine it would struggle to make it past a pitch in a boardroom today, because it is very kitchen sink drama. A man comes home from work one day to find his wife, suitcases packed and by the door, leaving him and their young son. The man, partially believing she will be back one day, tries looking after his boy and keeping up his important and hectic work life. While there is one plot hole that keeps hurting your experience of the film (surely this man can afford a nanny to give him a few hour’s breathing space on work days), it is otherwise a very natural, dynamic piece of film-making. It features some cracking scenes that probably float under the radar due to the minimalist nature of the movie. One moment, probably best described as the bit with the ice cream, marks a dark point in Kramer Vs Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s Ted cracks under the pressure of being a single father and screams some honest truths to his young son. That’s perhaps the core thing that makes this movie so affecting. Even if you don’t relate to the struggling story of a single parent, it feels so natural and honest that the picture comes across as endearing regardless. There is some warm about how the film doesn’t just show the lows of single parenting, but the good moments too. While Ted clearly finds it tough to make it at the top end of his firm and keep his son comfortable, he does build confidence. The film starts and ends with Ted making French toast with his son. The first time, his first experience as a single father, is disastrous, made worse by the fact that Ted won’t acknowledge his mistakes. By the end, both him and his son, Billy, can make French toast like a well-oiled team. It is a pleasant experience. Then the film becomes gripping again, when Joanna Kramer returns out of nowhere and demands her son back, calling herself a better parent for Billy. The movie descends into a courtroom drama. The courtroom scenes could have been more gripping, perhaps the budget of the film not quite getting across that meaty legal battle you want. Or perhaps custody battles are simply small time affairs and in being honest, Kramer Vs Kramer loses some of that Hollywood sparkle that makes their films so gripping. But if the content doesn’t quite excite, the characterisation does, as both mother and father are reduced to desperate acts of petty hatred to win the right to look after their son. It is a particularly tough watch to see the parents go from loving mother and father, husband and wife, to bitter enemies.
The joy of a film as low-key and natural as Kramer Vs Kramer is that it becomes a treasure chest for fans of Hoffman and Streep’s work. Dustin Hoffman shines here, the role of ordinary man somehow only serving to highlight his talents as one of the greater method actors out there. While some reports of his method acting here muddy the waters slightly (he was a prick to Streep off-camera to help him understand the role – he also slapped her when the cameras were rolling, allegedly lost in the moment), it still results in a touching performance, as a man lost in the chaos of his life. Right from his denial of his wife leaving him to the quiet heartbreak of a man who might be losing his son, Hoffman is wondrous to behold. But don’t let that take away from Meryl Streep, potentially one of the greatest actresses of our time. To make her even more exciting, Joanna Kramer marks her first proper film role (although Deerhunter made it into the cinemas before). What a performance! It is a tough one too, Joanna easily being read as a selfish bitch. It was Streep who fought to make the character more vulnerable, more human. The film is definitely better for it. Even when Joanna Kramer is throwing her ex-husband under the bus, you believe that she is convinced she is doing the right thing. And it is breaking her inside. How does Streep come across as so weak, yet so strong and fiery at the same time? She really is an icon of the acting industry. For fans of her work, and Hoffman’s, Kramer Vs Kramer is a cracking film to drag out.
Final Verdict: Perhaps a little too low-key for its good, Kramer Vs Kramer nevertheless has some decent film-making buried away here.