Revisiting Kramer vs. Kramer
When you think of 70s movies, you think of grit. You think of dark, tough, earnest films that bucked against Hollywood conventions, storytelling formulas, and the audience’s desire for cut-and-dried answers. The Godfather, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The French Connection, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Dog Day Afternoon, etc….these were movies that weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. But there are some equally brilliant 1970s films that trade more in pathos, humor, and levity than in grime: Being There, Paper Moon, Harold and Maude, Annie Hall, etc. But there’s one gem of a film called “Kramer vs. Kramer” that falls somewhere between these two spheres: decidedly not “gritty” (tonally, at least…emotionally might be a different story) but decidedly earnest at the same time. The feel of “Kramer vs. Kramer” is rather light, and you’d be tempted to call it a “dramedy” before you realize that little to none of what you’re seeing is funny (“Okay. What color?” being one exception). No, Robert Benton’s 1979 lightning-in-a-bottle offering is something else altogether: easy to watch but far from trivial, unapologetically emotional but far from cloying, absolutely serious but far from heavy-handed. It’s stunning how much this title seems to bathe in that ever elusive movie-magic. You’re drawn in emotionally from the very beginning. You grow to feel for each of the three people involved (each in different ways). You believe that you personally have some stake in the outcome. How often can you say that about a movie? I’m not generally one for “sentimental,” but “Kramer vs. Kramer” pulls it off with seemingly no effort. It never comes across as manipulative. You don’t feel that it’s cheating by making you care about the proceedings. It simply welcomes you to get wrapped up in a simple story about three people whose lives have been radically changed. Basic, yes, but the “bigness” of the movie comes from the heartstrings. For these characters, it’s the most important thing in the world. And for two hours, it is for you too. If you haven’t seen “Kramer vs. Kramer,” I suggest you check it out, and if you’ve already seen it, I suggest you return for another visit.
I certainly don’t mean it as faint praise when I say this movie is “easy,” because it can be among the highest compliments. It never seems to break a sweat, even though you know how difficult it must be to do such heavy lifting. This film doesn’t seem to “try” to do things. It just does them. A great deal of that falls on the writing and directing, yes, but how beautifully effortless these performances are. It all feels so real. Dustin Hoffman creates an everyman you can cheer for, but he doesn’t turn Ted into some kind of saint. He’s got his issues, just like everyone else, and the film doesn’t shy away from some of his nasty behavior (Its most biting line begins with “And I hate you back…”). We buy that Ted was a lousy husband, and probably a pretty lousy father, before his wife calls it quits. But we also buy that he becomes a good father, not because he has some kind of gift but because he chooses to do so. It’s amazing that Meryl Streep elicits any sympathy at all, considering that her character walks out on her husband and child in the first few minutes of the movie and only briefly appears again to fight our protagonist for custody. But she does, and those courtroom scenes are wrenching because we really don’t want to see either parent deprived of time with their son. Ultimately, though, the tone is a hopeful one. Three people are trying to navigate a difficult situation, and by the end of it, what we have is not so much a battle as a give-and-take. This is a movie full of small moments, but they can really floor you with their power. From one french-toast-making scene to another, you feel that you’ve been on a journey with these characters. When that elevator door closes, you’re filled with both joy and sadness: joy for the outcome but sadness that you too have to say goodbye.