Sony // 1979 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 28th, 2001
"I love my son." -- Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer
In a 1996 edition of the L.A. Times, experts predicted that nearly half off all marriages would end in divorce. This is a pretty sobering fact for couples hoping for true and lasting love. Most of us strive for a relationship built on a solid foundation, often finding that work, relationships or other vices take control of our lives. In the wake of this fact marriages are shattered and families torn apart. Such is the case in the 1979 drama Kramer vs. Kramer. Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, Kramer vs. Kramer went on to become a hit at the box office and a critical darling. Starring Dustin Hoffman (Hook, Wag The Dog) and Meryl Streep (Postcards From The Edge, Death Becomes Her) as sparring, disillusioned parents, Kramer vs. Kramer dukes it out on DVD care of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment.
Ben Kramer (Hoffman) thinks he has a well-adjusted life. Devoted to his work, Ben is at the top of his game at an ad agency in New York City. He thinks his home life with his wife Joanna (Streep) and son Billy (Justin Henry) is also great -- until Joanna informs Ben that she's leaving him and abandoning her son to go and "find herself." Confused and hurt, Ben is now forced to live a new life as a single parent with difficult responsibilities. Though Ben is far from perfect, he attempts to find a successful balance between his professional life and his home life.
Through ups and downs, Ben and his son find that their new way of life is not easy. Soon Ben's work suffers as he begins to devote more and more time to Billy's upbringing. Finally thinking that he may be doing things right, Ben starts to get into the groove of single parenthood. This doesn't last long, as after a year and a half Joanna returns home -- and she wants custody of her son. However, Ben is not ready to give Billy up -- at least not without a fight.
Much like Robert Redford's Ordinary People (which would win Best Picture the year after Kramer vs. Kramer), Kramer vs. Kramer is about a family in turmoil. In Redford's film the tragedy was the loss of a child -- in Kramer vs. Kramer it is the loss of a marriage. I suspect that for many people who see this film (and the thousands that already have), Kramer vs. Kramer is a hard movie to watch. The dissolving of love and devotion is a hard story to sit through. So much of our pain comes from the fact that we let others down, and sometimes they let us down. Kramer vs. Kramer balances this idea in a different scale. Most divorce/custody films deal with the mother gaining custody of her child after the father's abandonment. Kramer vs. Kramer asks the question "what if it were the father who had to raise the child?" This may not be the newest concept, but back in 1979 audiences had never seen a film dealing with this subject matter (in fact, the subject of divorce was scarcely present in most movies back then).
Director/writer Robert Benton (The Late Show, Nobody's Fool) handles everything with a touch of humor and realism that makes the story stand out among other "families in crisis" films. Kramer vs. Kramer is based on the book by Avery Corman and written for the screen with sensitivity by Benton. Benton seems to understand the characters and lets there be a free flow of dialogue that feels very smooth and natural. Dustin Hoffman was in the middle of a divorce during the course of Kramer vs. Kramer, and this in turn brings a bit more feeling to his role.
The performances in Kramer vs. Kramer are what drive the story to great drama. Both Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep won Academy Awards for their portrayals of the dueling Kramer's. Streep plays a woman who has grown cold and distant from the family she once loved. Like many women, her troubles may lie in that she married too young; or, as she states, the fact that Ben's love of his work is what dominates his life, not his love for his wife and child. Her assertiveness to leave is a sad fact among many married couples today -- they don't feel like working things out. On the flipside of that coin, Ben seems blinded to Joanna's needs and feelings. His world revolves around making it to the top of the corporate ladder. Even when Joanna is trying to tell Ben she's leaving him, his reaction is for her to wait one minute while he finishes up a task brought home from the office.
Kramer vs. Kramer doesn't try to answer all the questions it asks. Instead, it attempts to look at what's best for the one person that matters the most: the child. In the war of bitter divorce, that can be the one thing that is often overlooked. Hoffman's character slowly comes to the realization that the important thing in life is not money or work, but the seeds you sow at home. Streep's character also slowly comes to that realization, or does she? The film focuses mostly on Hoffman's character, showing Joanna in a more ambiguous light. She says she wants to be with her son, but what mother would pick up and leave without so much as a fight?
Hoffman was very deserving of the Oscar he won for his role as Ben, though I'm not so sure the same can be said about Streep's Oscar. Streep is very good as Joanna, though she's off-screen so much that her character almost seems to be even lower than supporting. Dustin Hoffman shows why he is considered one of the best actors in Hollywood; he commands the screen with energy to spare. For all intents and purposes, Kramer vs. Kramer is his show -- and a very good one at that.
Kramer vs. Kramer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture looks very good for its age with only minimal defects. There was a tad bit of grain detected in the image, and only a slight amount of edge enhancement. Overall I was fairly impressed with Columbia's work on this title. Colors were solid and very natural, blacks deep and solid.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 in both French and English. This was the original presentation in 1979, and I have to say that although a 5.1 mix would have been nice, it really isn't needed for a film like Kramer vs. Kramer. Since this is a dramatic story that is basically dialogue driven, the 1.0 track fits the bill. Dialogue, effects and music were all mixed evenly with no hiss or distortion present. Also included are subtitles in English, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.
Unfortunately, Kramer vs. Kramer doesn't include many extra features. However, what Kramer vs. Kramer does include is one extra special feature: an exclusive documentary titled Finding the Truth: The Making of "Kramer vs. Kramer". This documentary runs about 50 minutes and includes newly shot interviews with Dustin Hoffman, director Robert Benton, producer Stanley R. Jaffe, Meryl Streep, child actor Justin Henry, and many more. I'll tell you something, if you're looking for a definitive inside look at Kramer vs. Kramer, this documentary is it. Comprehensive to say the least, Finding the Truth: The Making of "Kramer vs. Kramer" looks at how the script came about, how the casting decisions were made, and what it was like to be part of this acclaimed film. I found this to be a very enjoyable feature, and well worth my time.
Also included are some filmographies on the principle cast and crew, as well as theatrical trailers for Kramer vs. Kramer, plus two other Dustin Hoffman films, Hook and Hero.
Kramer vs. Kramer sometimes retains a "movie of the week" quality that tends to make you think of every Monday Night Movie you've ever seen. However, keep in mind that Kramer vs. Kramer was there first, and did it better.
Otherwise, this is a sharply poignant film about the trials and tribulations of being a single parent and having no clue how to fix French toast.
For around $20, Kramer vs. Kramer is worth the money if you're a fan of the film, of if you feel the need to own as many Best Picture winners as you can on DVD. I wasn't expecting to like Kramer vs. Kramer as much as I did, and Hoffman and Streep's performances are stunning with excellent writing by Robert Benton. With a decent transfer, average audio and one good supplement, Kramer vs. Kramer is at the very least worth a rental.
Columbia is slapped with a minor fine for supplying us with only a scant few extra features, though let off on good behavior for putting out a very moving film.
Review content copyright © 2001 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailers
* Production Notes
* Exclusive Documentary: Finding the Truth: The making of "Kramer Vs. Kramer"