Review: Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

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A good film held back by moments of moralization!

Written By: Robert Benton
Directed By: Robert Benton

I have heard people argue that Kramer Vs. Kramer doesn’t take sides, and I fail to see how that is the case. Kramer Vs. Kramer is a film that at various times firmly takes one side over the other. At times in the way it chooses to frame Tom it is clearly on the side of the father, yet at other times because of the way it chooses to show Joanna is is clearly on her side. A couple of moments in particular struck me as incredibly manipulative and just flat out bad cases of film making.

The first would be when Joanna is reunited with Billy. I don’t know how anyone can watch that scene and not feel like they are being manipulated by the film. The music hails it as a triumphant moment, celebratory music plays in the background, the camera makes sure to highlight Billy’s happy face as he runs. It’s as if the movie is telling us to forget all we have seen in the first hour, because now things are back to the way they should be and Billy is happy. My jaw almost hit the floor when that happened, because while I had issues with Kramer Vs. Kramer before that moment, that was the time when it became clear to me that in an effort to not take a side in the long run the film was randomly taking sides during its run time and hoping the audience wouldn’t notice.

The second moment that stands out is also one where I fail to see how people could view it as anything but the film taking a side. Tom is on the stand and he is given a soapbox moment, a moment where the film suspends reality to allow for him to make a speech in the courtroom that isn’t in the least bit believable. I actually agree with Tom’s speech, but, it didn’t belong in that moment or in a movie that wants to be as serious as Kramer Vs. Kramer. My jaw came closer to the floor, it didn’t hit, but it came an awful lot closer.

In the early moments of Kramer Vs. Kramer I was struck by the feeling that the film was glossing over important moments. I don’t believe it was actually doing this in most cases, but the film moved so fast that I was never given a chance to breathe, to truly acknowledge what I was seeing. You add this in with the moments I have described above and you are left with a film that strives too hard for the emotional moment but never quite achieves the emotion it wants because it won’t let the events transpire, it feels the need to manufacture one moment and then quickly move on to the next before it has any chance to register with the audience.

You might be wondering by this point if I have anything good to say about Kramer Vs. Kramer? I most certainly do, its main strength, and realistically the facet that props it up and saves it from falling apart under its own manipulations is the acting of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. When the camera isn’t trying to force them they are very natural and very real, the few times when the film slows its pace down and allows them time to truly emote you can feel for their characters and see the true depth that the actors are reaching for in their performances. I don’t want to go overboard in my praise, but there are some movies where the performances are strong enough to elevate uneven material to a better level, and Kramer Vs. Kramer is such a movie.

The sad fact is that there is plenty of truth in what Kramer Vs. Kramer presents. Child rearing is thought of as a motherly thing and it doesn’t matter how in the wrong the mother may be she will win over the father, just ask my roommate. But, Kramer Vs. Kramer eschews an honest portrayal of the realities of such a situation for attempts at taking each side at different occasions so as to appease everyone. The power of this issue needs to be presented amorally, not in the way that Kramer Vs. Kramer chose to go. Still, I would label Kramer Vs. Kramer a good movie based on the strength of its two leads alone. A massively uneven film, but a good one nonetheless.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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