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Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer
Columbia TriStar
1979 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 105m. / Street Date August 21, 2001 / 24.95
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Production Designer Paul Sylbert
Film Editor Gerald B. Greenberg
Writing credits Robert Benton from the novel by Avery Corman
Produced by Stanley R. Jaffe
Directed by Robert Benton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kramer vs. Kramer takes what might be fodder for an exploitative television movie, and makes from it one of the better movies about family dynamics. It's a film of performances that makes us feel privy to personal intimacies. Careful direction keeps it narrowly focused on the relationships between a handful of characters, without becoming claustrophobic. It also paints a picture of the pain of marriage and divorce that has yet to be bettered.


Workaholic ad man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is shocked when his unhappy wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) simply leaves one night, giving little reason beyond the fact that 'she can't live with him any more.' Faced with the problem of taking care of their five-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) on his own, Ted must neglect his coveted new position at work, and soon is in danger of losing his job altogether. Adjusting to his new role of both mother and father, Ted seems to be handling things well. Then Joanna returns to get Billy back, a demand she's willing to take to court.

Avery Corman described his source novel as a chronicle of the selfish youth of the 60s running into the problems of divorce in the 70s. But the creative triumvirate of Jaffe, Benton and Hoffman pooled their painful divorce experiences to make Kramer vs. Kramer more personal in approach. The Kramers fall apart for the usual reasons - an unfulfilled wife, a husband whose life is centered on his work. Dustin Hoffman, originally not interested in the story, ended up playing the character while he himself was in the midst of a separation.

It is indeed a Hoffman show all the way, as Meryl Streep is physically absent most of the time, and little Justin Henry's performance is controlled under Hoffman's direction. As egotistical as Hoffman is, he's still something of a marvel to behold, retaining our sympathy when he's playing pigheaded, and earning our approval as he learns how to be a father. The set piece moments in this film are all the more amazing for the fact that what we so vividly remember are Hoffman and Henry's most minute expressions and reactions. The 'French toast' scene doesn't come off as blocked or covered ... we seem to really be there witnessing it all.

Hoffman's work life and other concerns are sketched so lightly, that beyond the top three or four names in the cast, other faces barely have time to make their statements and move on. A young JoBeth Williams has a memorable moment in the hallway with Justin; veteran Howard Duff's role as the defense lawyer has been pared down to a minimum. Best friend Jane Alexander has a much larger presence, but drops out of the film just before the home stretch. Yet the movie never feels hemmed-in or minimalist. For the Emergency Room scene, which consists of just a couple of tracking shots following a running Hoffman, several blocks of traffic right off of Central Park had to be shut down.

Meryl Streep's career was already going into orbit after her television debut in the Holocaust miniseries; she shot her scenes for Kramer vs. Kramer while simultaneously working on Manhattan for Woody Allen. The Joanna Kramer part is a particularly tough one. Audiences could be expected to root so fervently for Ted the husband, that it's practically impossible to generate sympathy for the mother who abandons her child. Streep projects innate decency and restraint - at the beginning she's so remorseful, we cannot help but forgive her even as she's walking out the door. Hoffman helps her during this episode by accentuating his boorish self-centeredness.

Kramer vs. Kramer made it very clear for a generation of selfish baby boomers that the responsibility of raising kids isn't something to be taken lightly. Little Billy has feelings, an ego, a desire to be special, and even the vain Ted soon learns the depth and satisfaction to be had from relating to a child who depends on nobody but you for practically everything. Ted Kramer also puts his child's welfare first, and makes some humiliating, previously unthinkable, career choices. This is a concept difficult to dramatize ... the idea that there could be a reason to work below one's earning level and retain self-respect must have come as big news to the disco generation.

Kramer vs. Kramer predictably winds up in an involved courtroom scene, but one organized not along legal lines but instead as a process of emotional discovery. In bitter conflict for possession of the child, each party has no desire to thwart the other, yet they find themselves in an ugly and cruel legal situation. Their life stories are aired in public; an accident can be interpreted as negligence. By the time the final shot has unspooled, most viewers are no longer aware of anything except the intensity of the drama before them. When the film ends abruptly, they're also surprised that they find it so satisfying an experience.

Columbia TriStar's transfer of Kramer vs. Kramer starts with a very grainy torch lady logo that thankfully gives way to a pristine 16:9 transfer of the film. Nestor Almendros' muted and soft colors are beautifully rendered; this is a film with a very clean look and few opticals. Every shot is a model of carefully graded light and shade. The camera does few 'tricks' and supports the drama between the characters with an almost-invisible non-presence.

In addition to Columbia Tristar's usual bushel of languages and subtitles, and a selection of trailers, there is a lengthy documentary featuring a detailed and frank account of the shooting of the film, with excellent interviews from the producers and key actors. Dustin Hoffman gives a very open and generous interview and is obviously very proud of the film. Meryl Streep is just as charming as you'd think she'd be. Both interviews feel like confidences being entrusted to the audience; when Streep compares Robert Benton's collaborative directing approach to Woody Allen's dictatorial style, you know this is no public-image snow job.  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kramer vs. Kramer rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers, documentary, Finding the Truth: The Making of Kramer vs. Kramer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 29, 2001


1. Caveat: Savant edited this documentary, and obviously thinks it's a good one, but if you're suspicious of such conflicts of interest, make note.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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