“Kramer vs. Kramer” – Classic Film Reviews #5

“Kramer vs. Kramer” was released in 1979 and was written & directed by John Benton. The film swept at the 1980 Oscars, winning Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, and Picture. It stars Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer, a advertising executive, Meryl Streep as his wife Joanna, and Justin Henry as their son Billy. One day, Joanna leaves Ted and their son after being dissatisfied with her old life and Ted’s workaholic behavior. Ted and Billy both struggle without Joanna at first, but they learn to love each other as Ted realizes he should focus more on family than his work.

It’s important to note that beyond what I explained in the introduction, the movie doesn’t have much of a plot. The movie’s focus is almost exclusively on the bond between Ted and Billy, so this film’s appeal is mainly the phenomenal acting on display by most of its actors. Dustin Hoffman was brilliant in the film. He did a good job of making the character’s split from his wife feel realistic and relatable. Hoffman didn’t fall into the overacting trap many actors do in these types of films, and his chemistry with Justin Henry was strong. I was so thankful that Justin Henry gave a good performance in this movie because most child actors in movies are absolutely abysmal, but he was definitely an exception. The best and most emotional scenes in this movie are the ones between Ted and his son where they do simple things like eat dinner or cook together. My favorite scene was one where Ted and Billy simply fight over eating ice cream during dinner.

Another great aspect of the film is the dialogue. The banter is very snappy and the monologues aren’t sappy or underwhelming. It also helps that the directing and acting was good enough to strengthen the dialogue.

While Dustin Hoffman and the rest of the cast gave incredible performances, I found Meryl Streep to be overly dramatic in the film. Maybe it’s the script, but Streep cries in almost every scene she is in, which can be insufferable at times. I don’t think her Oscar for this film was well deserved because she seemed like she was acting in a soap opera while the other actors were doing their best to make the characters as real and relatable as possible. I also thought the writing for her character was a little weak. At times the film made it seem like Joanna (Streep) was the villain who was abandoning her child only to come back & take him away from his father, but other times the movie tries to make her actions justified somehow. This simply doesn’t work because the movie spends so much more time with Ted & Billy, and Joanna is only in the film during the first scene and the third act. She doesn’t have enough time to grow on the audience and make them feel for her.

A film that is able to make both sides of a divorce understandable and sympathetic is “Marriage Story.” The film spends about equal time with the mother & father and shows what each of them did wrong in the relationship. That way, when the custody battles ensue the audience feels for both characters and can’t completely decide who the protagonist is. “Kramer vs. Kramer” didn’t do that, which would be fine if it wasn’t already trying to.

Although the Joanna Kramer character was written and acted poorly, almost every other aspect of “Kramer vs. Kramer” was executed perfectly. Dustin Hoffman gave one of his best performances, the direction was excellent, and the writing was superb, so I strongly recommend this film.

Grade: A-

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