Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): Written and directed by Robert Benton. Based upon the novel of the same name by Avery Corman. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander, and George Coe. Rated PG for some nudity and brief violence. Running time: 105 minutes.
What better way to upset traditional family structure than a film where a mother abandons her child, leaving the husband to raise him? Boasting star power and creative talent, Kramer vs. Kramer proved Hollywood could tackle a tricky subject like divorce in an unexpectedly accessible manner.
After years of unhappiness, Joanna divorces her incredulous husband Ted, leaving him to raise their son Billy. We follow Ted as he struggles to adjust to his new role as father and sole breadwinner. But when Joanna realizes she wants her son back, it threatens to put Billy in the middle of a nasty custody battle.
Benton, as writer and director, balances the realities of divorce with moments of humor in the face of adversity. The film never attempts to sweeten the effects of divorce on both husband, wife, and child, and portrays its characters as real people—we understand why Joanna left her husband, why she wants her son back, but also why Ted wants to raise Billy himself, having discovered the joys of fatherhood. Even as their respective lawyers go for the jugular, Ted and Joanna never lose their humanity.
Hoffman and Streep fully invest in their difficult roles—Hoffman transforms from high-powered businessman to die-hard family man. Streep brings rawness and nuance to the difficult role of guilt-ridden wife and mother, but it’s Justin Henry as Billy who solidifies the film’s emotional core. He’s written and acted as a child of his own age, not a wunderkind beyond his years. It’s only Benton who makes mis-steps—with the too-convenient reconciliation between father and son, and some strange editing choices which lead to awkward transitions between scenes.
Despite minor flaws, however, Kramer vs. Kramer hits harder than you might expect of a mainstream Hollywood film. It’s more entertaining than a film about divorce has any right to be.
Next film: Ordinary People, 1980