"Kramer vs. Kramer" wouldn't be half as good as it is
-- half as intriguing and absorbing -- if the movie had taken sides. The
movie's about a situation rich in opportunities for choosing up sides: a
divorce and a fight for the custody of a child But what matters in a story like
this (in the movies and in real life, too) isn't who's right or wrong, but if
the people involved are able to behave according to their own better nature.
Isn't it so often the case that we're selfish and mean-spirited in just those
tricky human situations that require our limited stores of saintliness?
"Kramer vs. Kramer" is about just such a situation. It
begins with a marriage filled with a lot of unhappiness, ego and selfishness,
and ends with two single people who have both learned important things about
the ways they want to behave. There is a child caught in the middle -- their
first-grader, Billy -- but this isn't a movie about the plight of the kid but
about the plight of the parents.
has traditionally approached stories like this from the child's point of view,
showing him unhappy and neglected by the grownups -- but what if the grownups
aren't really grown up? What about a family in which everybody is still
basically a kid crying for attention and searching for identity?
the case here. The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as a workaholic advertising
executive whose thoughts are almost entirely centered around his new account --
so much so that when he comes home and his wife announces she's walking out on
their marriage, he hardly hears her and doesn't really take her seriously. But
his wife (Meryl Streep) is walking out. She needs time to find herself, she
says; to discover the unrealized person she left behind when she went into the
away we're close to choosing sides and laying blame: How can she walk out on
her home and child? we ask. But we can't quite ask that question in all
sincerity, because what we've already seen of Hoffman makes it fairly clear why
she might have decided to walk out. She may be leaving the family but he's
hardly been a part of it. Harassed, running late, taking his son to school on
the first day after his wife has left, he asks him: "What grade are you
in?" It's the first. Hoffman didn't know.
movie leaves Streep offscreen during its middle passages, as Hoffman and the
kid get to know each other, and as Hoffman's duties as a parent eventually lead
to his firing at the ad agency. These scenes are the movie's most
heart-warming. The movie's writer and director, Robert Benton, has provided his
characters with dialog that has the ring of absolute everyday accuracy, but in
the case of the kid (the young actor is named Justin Henry), he and Hoffman
reportedly decided to use improvisation where possible.
are set up and then the young boy is more or less left free to respond in his
own words, with Hoffman leading and improvising as well, and many moments have
the sense of unrehearsed real life.
that means is that we can see the father and son learning about each other and
growing closer. Another movie might have hedged its bets, but "Kramer vs.
Kramer" exists very close to that edge where real people are making real
decisions. And that's true, too, when the movie reaches its crisis point: when
the Streep character returns and announces that now she feels ready to regain
custody of her son.
now we have no inclination at all to choose sides. Our sympathies do tend to be
with the father -- we've seen him change and grow -- but now we are basically
just acting as witnesses to the drama. The movie has encouraged us to realize
that these people are deep enough and complex enough, as all people are, that
we can't assign moral labels to them.
vs. Kramer" is a movie of good performances, and it had to be, because the
performances can't rest on conventional melodrama. Dustin Hoffman's acting is
about the best in his career, I think, and this movie should win him an Academy
Award nomination and perhaps the Oscar. His performance as Ratso in
"Midnight Cowboy" (1970) might strike some people as better than this
one, but he had the advantage there of playing a colorful and eccentric
character. This time he's just a guy in a three-piece suit, trying to figure
out the next 24 hours. One of his best scenes comes as he applies for a job
during an ad agency's office Christmas party, and insists on an immediate
Streep has certainly been having quite a year, and has appeared in what seems
like half the year's best female roles (so far she's been in "The Deer
Hunter," "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and "Manhattan,"
and "Holocaust" on TV). In "Kramer vs. Kramer," Benton
asked her to state her character's own case in the big scene where she argues
for her child from the witness stand. She is persuasive, but then so is Jane
Alexander, who plays her best friend, and whose character is a bystander and
witness as Hoffman slowly learns how to be a father.
is an important movie for Robert Benton, who co-wrote "Bonnie and
Clyde" and also wrote and directed "Bad Company" and "The
Late Show." He spends a great deal of attention on the nuances of dialog:
His characters aren't just talking to each other, they're revealing things
about themselves and can sometimes be seen in the act of learning about their
own motives. That's what makes "Kramer vs. Kramer" such a touching
film: We get the feeling at times that personalities are changing and decisions
are being made even as we watch them.