Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reality (Again) Leaves Me Less Than Impressed With Kramer Vs. Kramer.

The Good: Acting, Characters, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Plot, Oppressive mood
The Basics: A decent film, Kramer Vs. Kramer is a bit more dated than revealing now and given how common divorce and custody battles are, sadly depicts the norm.

"They" say, frequently, that you can't please everyone and I know I am guilty of that almost constantly. I kvetch about dramatic conventions and how utterly annoying Hollywood body types are in movies and how ridiculous it is that realistic people are seldom portrayed having real problems in movies. And I constantly rail about how characters in films always seem to have enough money or live in places that look unrealistic for what their means actually are. But, given real people fighting like in The Story Of Us (reviewed here!) or a poor person surrounded by her rich friends in Friends With Money, I just kvetch kvetch kvetch about how the movies are not entertaining and that for those who live poor or have heard parents fight for weeks at a time, this is not worth watching. I have come to the same place with Kramer Vs. Kramer.

In the case of Kramer Vs. Kramer, I am able to more enthusiastically recommend the film than I am able to sell readers on why they might want to watch the movie. The reason, as cliche as it is, is that with the prevalence of divorce in the United States, Kramer Vs. Kramer is more dated and while I can appreciate the performances and I actually liked a few of the characters, most of the movie plods along in a rut which many of us have far too much experience with. Ironically, it took for me writing this to recall that not only am I the child of divorce, but I've been divorced myself (there were no children involved in my divorce). The power of Kramer Vs. Kramer was that while I've experienced divorce as the person being abandoned, the film makes the child, Billy Kramer, so much the focus that his is the story viewers empathize with most. Watching Kramer Vs. Kramer put me back in that mindset, that of a child watching parents divorcing, so effectively that it was only when I began analyzing the film that I recalled that divorce was not just something that happened to my parents. That is admittedly powerful for a film to do.

On the day that he lands a big account at the advertising agency he works for and what should be one of the best days of his life, Ted Kramer returns home to find his wife leaving him. When Joanna walks out on them, Ted and Billy (their six year-old) must learn to live with one another and Ted, who is used to putting in long hours and focusing on his career, quickly finds himself overwhelmed by raising the child and working at the office. Ted gets an unlikely ally, though, in his neighbor - one of Joanna's former friends - Margaret, who helps him navigate his divorce and raising Billy.

But after fifteen months, Joanna returns to New York City and watches Ted and Billy. In that time, she decides to sue for custody, shortly after Billy takes a fall from a jungle gym which requires him to get stitches. At the worst possible time, Ted loses his job and must struggle to maintain custody, even though all of the system seems predisposed toward granting Joanna custody.

Kramer Vs. Kramer is a refreshingly direct drama and one of the shortest movies to win the Best Picture Oscar. Right away, the two essential conflicts in the film are established: the relationship conflict and the career conflict and those are, essentially, the only two stories that are developed and carried through to the end. But the truth is, viewers will be largely unsurprised by either aspect, given how they are established. Almost immediately, Joanna leaves, so this forces Ted to step up and become the father he had not been before. It is unsurprising that he rises to the occasion, because if he did not, the subsequent conflict between Ted and Joanna over Billy's custody would not be at all vital. In the process, Ted must decide which is more important, his career or raising his son well. This, too, is an unsurprising character arc and direction for the film, though it does make Ted a more likable character.

The timeless aspect of Kramer Vs. Kramer comes in the character traits (because it is certainly not coming through in the costumes, like the big-'70's glasses worn by one of the characters!) which are admittedly more complicated than in most dramas. Ted is not a monolithically good father and while the audience does not truly come to like Joanna ever, it is hard to characterize her as a villain. But Ted has very real human emotions: he gets frustrated, he throws a glass at the wall, he yells at Billy when Billy does age-appropriate boundary testing. But he also has a very clear and full love for Billy and Joanna. And Ted works hard to provide. In fact, one of the most subtle, best aspects of the character arcs are two breakfasts with Ted and Billy where they make French toast together: the two scenes show clear growth and development in both characters and that is pretty much the best one can ask for from a film on the character front.

But the plot is very dated, save on the issue of custody. The courts still favor the mother in this aspect (I guess this helps make up for the Glass Ceiling, sexual harassment and disproportionately high violent crime victim rates - you can be battered, harassed at work and underpaid, but the courts will let you have your kids more often than not), but the traumatizing nature of divorce and custody arrangements is not such a big deal. For all of the people who scream about the scourge of divorce and "broken homes," like it or not, with divorce rates over fifty percent, this is more the norm than the extraordinary in the United States.

Which brings me back to my original lines. We live it, why do we want to watch it as a movie to escape from all that? The answer is, we do not. Kramer Vs. Kramer is solidly emotional and entertaining (in its way), but it is hardly a film one wants to sit and watch and rewatch. This is a film that highlights (well) a social problem - that the courts are so predisposed toward mothers in custody hearings - by illustrating a hard-working father who comes to learn all of the right messages only to have his status as legal guardian threatened.

Usually, I write about the acting, but the movie stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; that the acting is somewhere between good and extraordinary is pretty much a given. Such is the case in Kramer Vs. Kramer. The two performers who never seem to get enough credit for the film, though, are Justin Henry as Billy and Jane Alexander as Margaret. Alexander holds her own with Hoffman for screen presence and having seen Hoffman in other works, that is no easy task. Alexander is emotional and articulate and makes great use of the few scenes she is in. But, for a change, a child actor comes through. Justin Henry steals his scenes as Billy by emotionally delivering his lines. When Billy falls off the jungle gym, Henry's wailing is so realistic one would actually think he had torn open his head. In fact, one of the best performances by a child actor ever would have to be when Billy is having stitches put in.

On DVD, Kramer Vs. Kramer arrives with minimal - but adequate - bonus features. The DVD has the original theatrical trailers, but no commentary track. There is a documentary which is thorough enough to make up for the lack of a commentary track, though. It is also worth noting that Kramer Vs. Kramer is erratically transferred to DVD. For example, when Ted is walking down the street in the middle of the film, while on his job hunt, the film quality becomes decidedly more grainy. Even so, most of the film looks good.

Kramer Vs. Kramer is a good drama, but it is likely to be real enough for an experience many people already have that it will seem redundant.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project, online here! Please check it out!]

For other dramas, please visit my reviews of:
A Family Thing


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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