“How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?”
I had a conversation with a friend about Dustin Hoffman a few days back, and he mentioned Kramer vs. Kramer as his favorite performance, so I gave it a viewing today. I sat down to write this review, did a quick Google search of Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman to do some date-checking, and I found a bunch of news articles published today about this very movie. Apparently a Meryl Streep biography has just come out that accuses Hoffman of being physically and verbally abusive towards Streep on the set of this movie, taunting her over her recently deceased boyfriend and even slapping her across the face before a scene in a fit of frustration. So that’s not good. I don’t have anything else to say about all of this, but it’s a topical lead-in, so I figured I’d share.
So potentially pretty bad dude Dustin Hoffman stars along Meryl Streep in this 1979 drama about divorce. It’s a pretty simple story, as to be expected from a big studio family film around this time. Hoffman’s character is left by his wife and has to take care of his son alone, learning valuable lessons about selflessness and unconditional love and so forth. It then turns into a legal battle once that whole first part runs out of steam, and Streep’s character returns to fight for custody of their son. There isn’t much complexity at all in terms of plot structure. The story follows Hoffman for the whole thing without any real deviation, and the formulaic nature of the time period makes it pretty easy to digest.
Hoffman and Streep pull out the same strong work we’ve come to expect from each of them. It’s interesting that Hoffman had already established himself as a big name after The Graduate and leads the movie with confidence, but this is Meryl Streep’s first major film. Coming from a theatre background originally, this is the movie that made her a household name. While not her strongest work, I think she still gives a passionate performance with the script she’s given (which limits her potential as a sympathetic character.) I think Hoffman is a more talented actor, especially in this film, but Meryl Streep is still such a fascinating actress to watch. There’s a magical quality about her performances, even in such an early work of hers, and it’s easy to see from this film that she was going to make a name for herself.
Subject matter is probably where this film made the biggest splash. You can tell they were shooting for some kind of “gray area,” with mixed success. Both Hoffman and Streep have very flawed characters, and the beginning seems to portray both of them negatively. Hoffman is a detached family man focusing too much on corporate success, while Streep’s sporadic decision to leave her family and break off contact from her son seems selfish. I guess the movie never does pick sides between the two, but I would argue that the needle is heavily tilted in Hoffman’s favor. As the protagonist, the movie creates this natural inclination towards his character as the good guy because we see his transition, and we view Streep as the evil witch taking the child away from a changed man. It’s all sort of intentionally muddled, but I think they could have gone further with this division. I really would have liked to see a movie where I don’t know which parent to root for. Kramer vs. Kramer only achieves this every now and then, and I think the main reason is that Meryl Streep doesn’t get enough screen time. What’s her personal journey after the divorce? Maybe we should want her to get her kid back? It’s unclear, because all we get is a bunch of heartfelt Dustin Hoffman for an hour or so, which really skews our perception of these characters as we are conditioned to root against Meryl Streep. This is probably the biggest weakness of the film.
I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t like this movie, though, because it does a lot of things well, and I still really liked it in the end. It’s a very technically successful movie, relying on textbook plot devices to move the story forward. It’s been nearly 40 years since this movie came out, and it really doesn’t seem too dated. The writing is strong, and there are a lot of cool images. I love how the French toast scene from the beginning is brought back towards the end in a heartbreaking way. It’s a movie about divorce, but it’s also about a selfish man’s transition into a loving father, and this comes across well through the visuals. By the end of the movie, you really start to feel for this guy you thought was a prick. It’s akin to Tom Cruise’s character in Rain Man, and both movies pull off this paradigm with equal success.
Kramer vs. Kramer is one of the most successful movie to explore the subject of divorce, and it’s really significant for its portrayal of the changing nature of the American family. Even if it seems like a one-sided story at times, it pushes boundaries in terms of content. It’s an admirable work with a lot of great surprises for a 1979 flick. With a simple story and a powerful message, Kramer vs. Kramer pulls of a fairly complex script with perfect technical execution, and it’s an example of how to tell an emotional story right. The end may be a little hokey, but it put a smile on my face, so I’ll give it a pass and call it a good movie.
Films Left to Watch: 965