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Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

Kram It

Genre: Drama

Starring: Dustin Hoffman (The GraduateStraw Dogs), Meryl Streep (SilkwoodOut of Africa)

Directed By: Robert Benton (Billy BathgateThe Human Stain)

Overview: When a woman walks out on her workaholic husband, he is forced to raise their 7-year-old son alone. When she returns to claim custody of him, he must then fight to keep him.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

The scene I describe below, as well as the scene where Billy falls from a jungle gym and is rushed by foot to the hospital is nothing short of genius, from cinematography to raw emotion. These scenes  helped to show how true to humanity this film was, how genuine the characters were as the story unfolded. The third act of the film focuses on a custody battle that turns dirty in court and ends with our hero losing his son, yet in the last scene, Billy's mother has a change of heart and decides to leave her boy with his father.  What could have  been a strong comment of paternal rights in a dramatic and realistic ending where we are made to feel the father's pain and loneliness at his son's departure is soured by the need to make good the feelings of the audience. In fact I felt this to be such a cop out that my memory of this film from 20 years ago ends with him explaining to his son why he's going back to his mother, rather than the saccharine and unbelievable one that was served. After all is said and done it's just one scene, but it's one scene too many.

Oh yeah, it's love alright.
Oh yeah, it's love alright.

Films like Ordinary People, Terms Of Endearment and Kramer Vs Kramer aren't by their nature 'feel good', but to someone passionate about tales of human drama, these films are their champions.

When I first saw Kramer Vs Kramer around the age of 13, I can safely say it was one of the films that helped define my appreciation of the genre.  Who was I to know then that it had won five Academy Awards: Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor, Meryl Streep for Best Actress, Robert Benton for Best Director and Best Screenplay, as well as the big prize: Best Picture of the Year. Also worthy of mention was the historic nomination of eight-year-old Justin Henry for Best Supporting Role, making him the youngest nominee for an Oscar.

One scene shows seven-year-old Billy Kramer openly defying his father by getting ice cream out of the fridge and eating it in front of him before finishing his dinner. While being  potentially comical, the scene revealed a far more disturbed psychological side of the child, as it ends with the boy crying "I want my mommy" from his bedroom, while father Ted Kramer makes himself a stiff drink, aware of the pain his son is going through.

What makes Kramer Vs Kramer special, aside from having such a young child as a tour-de-force on screen, is how the characters remain dramatic without going overboard. The mother isn't a raving lunatic, the father isn't a drunk. The reasons for divorce aren't so cut and dry,  and rather than focusing too much on the why of it all, the film goes at the pace of life, studying instead the present when it easily could have dredged up the past over and over again. Though the script may be just a little too easy on the flow of dialogue, the scenes are succinct and to the point, and as entertaining a lesson-teacher as any human drama can ever hope to be.

Mmmm. Tastes like punishment.
Mmmm. Tastes like punishment.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 84% (It Just Gets Kramer and Kramer)

Wow. For as much as I praised the Best Picture Oscar this got, it went up against Apocalypse Now. What on God's green Earth did Coppola do you get snubbed so bad? 

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