Directed by Robert Benton, Kramer vs Kramer follows a couple going through a divorce and fighting over custody of their 7-year-old son, Billy.
Kramer vs. Kramer feels very familiar which is both a compliment and a criticism. I can give it credit for being as influential as it is. Yet, I’ve also seen films execute the same story better which makes this worse by comparison. Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t nearly as nuanced as Marriage Story, a film that owes a lot to the renowned classic. I’ve instead reminded myself of my favorite films from the 70s and how influential they were on me. It’s not an ideal comparison but it’s the only one I have.
The benefit of the doubt
A lot of what drives the central conflict happens off-screen, and it feels like a plot device. What Ted Kramer is claimed to be by the story feels inconsistent with who we get to see. A man that’s supposed to be controlling towards his wife and narcissistic very soon turns into a loving and functional single parent. Seeing him turn into a great parent so quick makes me wonder if he was ever really a bad husband. Nothing about Ted Kramer makes me say with certainty that his wife and he should indeed get divorced. This shifts the reasons for the divorce to issues that Joanne Kramer went through personally making the conflict feel a bit one-sided.
Similarly, the only character dynamic that does feel fleshed out is between Billy and Ted Kramer. However, Joanna’s relationship with these two feels like an afterthought. The only time we really see Joanna at odds with Ted is when she returns after 18 months saying she wants custody. I can’t imagine any single parent reacting differently than how Ted did. We also never see how good Joanna is as a parent which makes it especially hard to like her.
More woman empowering than you think
But I don’t want to hate Joanna. The movie wants to justify her actions and make them seem necessary due to the situation she was in. Joanna stands for all women that went through similar problems of depression and identity crises. She can only be a good mother when she knows who she is as an individual first. However, the narrator of Kramer vs. Kramer is Ted. Because the film is so much from his eyes, it’s incredibly hard to relate to Joanna at all. From what I’ve read online, the original script made her out to be even worse. It was complexities brought out from Meryl Streep and her performance through which we can understand Joanna as an actual human being.
Apart from the long rant of criticism, there’s something to love as well. The bond between Ted and Billy has a very heartfelt arc. Amongst a myriad of films that often portray an incapable or abusive father, it’s surprisingly fresh to see someone try to be a good parent. A lot of credit goes to both Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry. Seeing Ted and Billy try to make a life together and be fairly successful at it is undoubtedly what I loved the most. The courtroom drama feels a bit cheesy but successfully drives the message of how unintentionally personal it can get. Something that’s only supposed to be fair and just split instead becomes an attack. In the end, everything that works, more than makes up for the shortcomings.
Kramer vs. Kramer feels like a couple’s story told mostly from the male’s perspective, overshadowing one character with another, resulting in it feeling one-sided rather than between equals. Performances from the cast bring depth to seemingly uncomplicated characters but it’s the heartfelt bond between a father and son that’s the highlight of the film.