Kramer vs. Kramer Review

(2.5 STARS)

“Kramer vs. Kramer” stars Dustin Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of his generation, and Meryl Streep, probably the greatest actress ever. Both actors won Academy Awards. Robert Benton won two Academy Awards (for directing and writing the picture), and the film won the big award back in 1979, Best Picture. With a pedigree like that, how can you go wrong? Well, as I found out, quite a few ways. The film is manipulative and clichéd, and the ending is terrible. But the acting – especially from Hoffman – was strong enough that it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) seems to have it all – a beautiful wife, an adorable son, and the admiration and respect of all of his coworkers. But one day, he comes home to a wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), who can’t take it anymore. Sick of Ted’s distance and indifference toward her, she decides to leave him and their son. Ted struggles at first as a father. He and Billy (Justin Henry) clash, and his work performance suffers as a result of his increased responsibilities at home. But eventually, the two build a very close bond. Then, Joanna comes back to New York with the singular goal of getting full custody of her son. So Ted faces the uphill battle that is a father’s custody dispute.

Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise, but nothing about the plot is original. Perhaps the open discussion about divorce was shocking back in 1979, but it doesn’t shock today. With more couples divorcing than staying together, this just feels like any other family. And being beaten over the head with the “fathers can be just as good parents as mothers” message doesn’t help the ordinary story go down any more smoothly.

Easily the worst thing about the film, however, is the ending. Without giving too much away (although you shouldn’t be surprised with how it ends), it’s almost as if the filmmakers said, “Alright, we made our point. Now let’s erase what happened so everyone will end up being happy.” I’m a staunch supporter of unconventional and/or downer endings. This film does everything in its power to avoid such an ending.

Hoffman does his absolute best to elevate this mediocre material. He creates a three-dimensional character, albeit one we’ve seen before. Still, his passion and strength of his conviction is admirable and gives you someone to root for, despite all the clichés. Meryl Streep isn’t quite as successful. She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but she doesn’t elevate her character above the material the way Hoffman does. Joanna is flighty and selfish. That’s it. There’s no other dimension to her, although the film wants you to think of her differently. It just doesn’t work. The only other actor of note is Justin Henry as Billy. He is still the youngest actor to ever receive an Oscar nomination, and I have absolutely no idea why. He plays a kid – cute, sad, confused, annoying, just your average kid.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” likely ranks among the bottom five Best Picture winners that I’ve seen (I think I’ve seen about half). I haven’t seen any of the films it beat in 1979, but I have to imagine one of them was better. If not, then it was a sad, sad year at the movies, for this one was more than just disappointing – it’s just completely unremarkable.

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