Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
10/10 Disjointed Custodies
Talk about striking a chord.
Kramer vs. Kramer is about a stay-at-home mom who, after years of unhappiness, leaves her workaholic husband to discover herself while he raises their son on his own. Left to juggle his career with his newfound role as a single parent, the dad quickly comes to the realization that he hardly knows how to fill his ex-wife’s spot and that he hardly even knows his own son. But the more time passes and the more they work at it, things start becoming second nature and the father eventually finds himself fighting for the life they’ve built together.
Folks, this is emotional kryptonite for me. For a lot of guys, I think Field of Dreams is generally considered the foolproof way to get the waterworks a-flowin’, and while I’m very much a part of that proud majority, this is the quintessential fathers-and-sons movie that leaves me lookin’ a hot mess of tears and sniffles every damn time. Call me soft, call me menstrual, tell me to quit watching Lifetime, but I’d be flat-out effing shocked if any guy got through this thing with dry eyes.
From the perfect cast to the affecting script, there are a lot of great reasons why this movie stands above the rest, but it’s really the subject matter more than anything else that does it for me. Sure, this isn’t the first movie to use divorce as a focal point and it won’t be the last, but there just aren’t many movies out there that deal with divorce so honestly and candidly as this does. And being someone who went through it as a kid way back when, it definitely connects in true-to-life ways that family dramas rarely achieve without feeling cheap.
The best way I can describe it is that this plot seems like it was lived out rather than written out. It wasn’t so much that I could see my dad in Dustin Hoffman, my mom in Meryl Streep, or myself in Justin Henry, it was more their highs and lows that brought on the deja vu. It’s the son lashing out at his dad by helping himself to ice cream because he doesn’t want what’s on the dinner menu. It’s the dad demanding to be in the operating room when his son has to get stitches. It’s the father and son making french toast in silence as though they’ve been doing it for years. God, I’ve got a freakin’ lump in my throat just thinking about those scenes, and as much as I can credit Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry for bringing that on, it ultimately works because I’ve been there.
I don’t know, a movie review doesn’t exactly seem the place to lay on the couch and get all Freud on you guys, but I’ll just say that writer/director Robert Benton did one hell of a job of adapting this script and bringing it to life. Just one heartbreaking, uplifting, and character-driven scene after the next that are all as memorable as the last.
But aside from the father and son’s relationship, I really dug the way Benton painted Meryl Streep’s character as the mom. When she walks out the door within the first five minutes, it’s easy to write her off as the “bad guy” for abandoning her son, but the more her presence is felt without her even being there and the more the father comes to terms with how he contributed to her leaving, those black-and-white labels end up being pretty hard to justify. It’s a great approach in that it gives the audience a chance to draw their own conclusions about who’s in the right or wrong at the very moment that everything falls apart instead of showing us everything that lead up to the divorce and making it obvious. It’s very reflective, it doesn’t take sides, and that was a smart way to go about things.
And not that it even needs mentioning, but Hoffman and Streep blow this sucker away. Streep is so strong and subtle as the mom and Hoffman is just one of the best damn movie dads you’ll ever find. But what does need mentioning is little Justin Henry as the son, and not only is he cute as hell with that mop top, but he really does hold his own against his Oscar-winning parents. Really phenomenal casting all around and what a nice surprise from Henry.
So Kramer vs. Kramer might not be perfect and I can see how some could write off certain aspects of the script as schmaltzy or Hollywood, but, holy hell, does it pack a punch. If you combined Searching for Bobby Fischer with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you might be in somewhere in the same ballpark…might be. There’s nothing very extraordinary about these people outside of the lengths they go to become better parents in the wake of a failed marriage, but that alone is more than enough to make them unforgettable. Even if you can’t empathize with the kind of stuff that this family goes through, it’s one of the all-time great movies about real people with real problems, and it deserved every Oscar it got. Will stand by that last statement until I revisit Apocalypse Now, but for the time being, yeah, I love this movie.