Kramer vs. Kramer

(Reviewed in 2001.)

Any parents thinking of divorce should be court-ordered to watch “Kramer vs. Kramer.” After seeing it, if there is even a dim chance of reconciliation, they’ll take it, rather than inflict their separation upon their children. That’s how powerful this movie is.

Having grown up in a blessedly unbroken home, I have no personal experience with warring parents or custody battles, but the emotions reflected in the movie seem genuine. My memory of the film from its release is that MAD Magazine called its parody “Crymore vs. Crymore.” That seems about right.

Set in Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, the film begins with up-and-coming advertising whiz Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) coming home from a particularly exhilarating day at the office to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaving him. He has neglected her, to some extent, but her problems may be more internal. Well-educated and talented, she has been wasting away as a housemom for six years, caring for their son Billy (Justin Henry) and letting her more marketable skills go to waste. She needs to “find herself,” a popular activity in those days (1979).

Ted goes through the anger and denial stages of grief, then zips ahead to weary acceptance. He is unacquainted with his wife’s breakfast-making and walking-to-school techniques, but Billy quickly teaches him. For his part, Billy remains heartbroken over his mother’s abandonment for much of the film, even as he is simultaneously won over by his father.

Director Robert Benton, who adapted the screenplay from Avery Corman’s novel (supposedly with input from a recently separated Hoffman), is marvelously succinct in his storytelling. The film covers almost two years of time, yet clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes. One scene halfway through of Ted and Billy’s morning routine — getting up, eating breakfast, reading the newspaper and a comic book — tells us everything we need to know about the comfortable relationship they’ve established, particularly in contrast to an earlier scene in which all of those elements were disastrous — and it’s only about 90 seconds long, too. Another brief scene of Ted attending Billy’s school play not only shows his status as a now-reformed workaholic, but also helps establish the passage of time: It’s a Halloween play, which means several months have passed since Joanna left.

Benton earned Oscars for his writing and direction, and the film won Best Picture. Hoffman and Streep earned Oscars, too, and they deserve them. Hoffman, who has often played unusual characters, here excels at being an Everyman, a modern professional whose life is rearranged by a child, a movie cliché that he pulls off without a trace of melodrama. And Streep, who disappears for most of the film then returns for a custody hearing, nails every scene she’s in, giving us the full range of her feelings in a few deft strokes.

I do wish Justin Henry were a little better as young Billy, but I suppose super-talented actors that age are hard to come by. Considering how effective the mere situations are, I can only imagine how much more devastating they’d be if I actually believed he was being affected by them. I was affected enough, and I was only watching.

A- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG, scattered profanity, mild sexuality, some nudity.)