Kramer vs. Kramer is essentially a character-driven drama. While there is little to be said for its technical direction, though to be sure it is ably directed and written for the screen by Robert Benton, this picture’ strength lies in its performances, furnished intelligently by both Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
Ted Kramer’ (Hoffman) obsession with his career as an advertising executive and resultant indifference to his wife Joanna (Streep) has driven her away. Kramer is left to raise their son of five years on his own. At first the two have an antagonistic relationship as Billy struggles to adapt to life without his loving mother and Ted is forced to sacrifice the work he loves to care for the boy. Kramer befriends his neighbor Margaret, also a single parent and the woman who advised Joanna to leave. She witnesses firsthand the transformation of Ted and Billy, who grow to have a tender relationship. A year and a half after abandoning her family Joanna returns to New York to reclaim her son. The struggle for custody ensues.
On the surface Kramer vs. Kramer, as the title implies, is a dramatization of a narrative we are all too familiar with in America; namely the tragic compromises that follow from divorce, particularly when a young child enters the calculus of what is ultimately a vicious legal battle. But more than that, at bottom, this film is about a man learning to be a father; to meet his encumbered obligation and live for something outside of himself. This allows Benton some license for humor: an early scene of Kramer attempting to cook breakfast for the boy resulting in a disaster of French toast stands out. It also allows Hoffman to express himself in some of the films more affecting scenes: reading to the boy before bed, dashing through the streets of Manhattan clenching him in his arms after a playground incident followed by a beautifully shot sequence of Kramer supporting his head and whispering to him while a doctor sutures the gash above his eye.
The truly transforming event for Kramer is the legal battle itself. He loses his job because of it and, to evince his competence as a parent before the court, is forced to find another job immediately. He tells his lawyer to give him 24 hours in which time he practically demands a job at another firm which pays less and for which he is overqualified. The trial montage itself is theater for some of the more arresting exchanges in the film but is also, unfortunately, unrealistically intense. The lawyers continually berate both of our titular characters, something that would never happen in reality, eliciting tears from Joanna when confronted with the accusation of failing at her every relationship. This may, however, be a necessary sin for a climactic reason as well as a thematic one and, regardless, the approach at least feels authentic. In these scenes the Kramers confront their demons and begin to question for the first time whether either one of them is fit to parent. They also realize they have both selfishly and childishly hurt the other for the sake of custody.
One incisive narrative feature gleaned from the courtroom is Benton’s strong statement regarding the legal precedence of awarding custody to the mother by default, a form of judicial discrimination that began to change by the release of this film and which is practically non-existent today. Without condemnation the director grants equal weight and consideration for both Ted and Joanna’ views, while at the same time emphasizing the uphill battle for the father despite having cared for the boy for almost two years because the mother abdicated her responsibility. Ted, of course, bears some culpability for her departure as well as a moral burden for his prior neglect of his family.
This film’s major weakness, at least narratively, is the denouement. Instead of taking the obvious route of the boy going to live with Joanna, perhaps accompanied by a heartbreaking farewell between Ted and Billy, Benton decides to append a clichéd, feel-good ending. Ostensibly, Joanna’ guilt leads her to reject custody and allow Billy to stay with his father. You can kind of sense this happening before actually seeing it on screen, but still you might be thinking, “no, it’s too obvious.. this film won’t succumb to that kind of …” and then it happens. If you’ve identified more with the father it’s almost vindicating, but still it leaves a bad aftertaste. Aside from that minor infraction, however, the film accomplishes the modest goals it sets for itself and, despite being grossly overestimated by the Academy (winning Best Picture that year over Apocalypse Now), is ultimately an entertaining and endearing picture.