Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer ★★★★

Released in 1979 when female nudity was still allowed in PG-rated films, Kramer vs. Kramer is still as powerful now as it was then, even if the film is now 38 years old. About a couple - Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) - who separate, divorce, and are now fighting a custody battle, the film is achingly real. Blessed with an authentic and heartbreaking script from Robert Benton, Kramer vs Kramer never ceases to both break your heart and be an absolutely riveting film. Praised for portraying the concerns of both Ted and Joanna evenly, Kramer vs Kramer may paint Joanna as a bad guy in the film, but her concerns are valid ones with regard to her marriage to Ted.

Ted, a workaholic, is a distant father. He provides financially, but misses the crucial part: emotion and low. His son Billy (Justin Henry) barely knows him. Joanna is done. She has been unhappy and forced to be a stay-at-home mom against her wishes, so she leaves. Ted is neglectful and old school with a set understanding of what a wife should be and do. This does not work for Joanna, so she leaves him and Billy to find herself and happiness. For the next 18 months, Ted and Billy fight and are forced to learn to live and love one another, while Ted is forced to parent. The end result is an unbreakable bond that Ted could never imagine having severed in the future. As such, he gets quite defensive when Joanna comes back with a job and wants to take her son back full-time. This is where Kramer vs Kramer fails to be fair, as it shows Ted and Billy for the most part. When Joanna gets Billy briefly for a visit, we only see how Ted handles giving him over. As such, we write off Joanna as a parent and start rooting for Ted to get the kid, even though this "bitch" wants to take Billy away from him. That said, for his part, Hoffman has incredible chemistry with the young Justin Henry. Hoffman plays an incredibly sympathetic man with great gravitas and care for the nuance of parenthood. He refuses to demonize Joanna and instead begins to look inward and identify what made her run away. He knows he screwed up and feels great remorse for those errors.

On the flip side, Meryl Streep is impeccable. Her testimony is raw, powerful, and engrossing. Her delivery is always top-notch and it is hard to deny that this is a performance worthy of her first Oscar. She is limited in screen time compared to Hoffman, but she makes an impact every time she appears on the screen. As Joanna, she plays this forward-thinking mother who looks beyond the home for gratification and success. As such, a home life is at odds with what she truly wants. Though she loves Billy, having him live with her would be a mistake for the both of them, even if she is a good mother. Her realization of this is an incredibly powerful moment in the film and underscores Joanna's confusion and lack of focus in her life at the moment.

Impeccably written, as mentioned, the film's main fault is that it takes Ted's side. We understand Joanna, but never comprehend why she wants to take Billy away. Why must Ted be limited to every other weekend and she gets the kid? The film too readily cops out and blames archaic beliefs of the judge that mothers are more important when, in reality, it must explain why Joanna refuses joint custody and wants Billy full-time. The two could split him and the end result would be hard, but easy to understand. Yet, they go guns blazing at one another because Joanna wanted to. This is unfortunate and makes her hard to sympathize with, even if her reason for divorcing Ted makes sense.

A powerful film, Kramer vs. Kramer is a riveting and thoroughly engrossing family drama that has authenticity in every line. Hoffman and Streep turns in powerful performances as the warring couple, even if the writing seems to take Hoffman's side a bit too much. That said, it is an incredibly nuanced and timeless film that rides on the back of its impeccable characters, real life drama, and acting.

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