Sony // 1979 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // February 25th, 2009
"My wife used to always say to me, 'why can't a woman have the same ambitions as a man?' I think you're right...and maybe I learned that much. By the same token, I'd like to know what law is there which says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex!"
A deeply emotional, enriching drama from writer-director Robert Benton (Places In The Heart), Kramer vs. Kramer swept many of the major Academy Awards in 1980, including Best Picture of the Year. Back in 2001, Sony gave the film its first DVD treatment, and while it wasn't a full-blown special edition, it was quite acceptable, boasting a nicely rendered print and a solid documentary as its sole bonus feature. Now that it's available on Blu-ray, is it worth an upgrade?
The Kramers are a middle-class couple who've been married for nearly a decade. Ted (Dustin Hoffman, Runaway Jury) is a well-respected, ladder-climbing advertising executive who is the traditional breadwinner and seems to be unable to spend much time with his family. Joanne (Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!) is the housewife who strongly desires to break out of her trapped existence and discover who she is, what she wants to do. And 7-year-old Billy (Justin Henry, Sixteen Candles) will be going through a dramatic adjustment when his mother leaves one day without saying goodbye.
As a result, father and son are forced to take care of each other. Ted attempts to juggle both work and looking after Billy, making his boss (George Coe, Bustin' Loose) extremely concerned. As for Billy, he's finding it difficult to accept the fact his mother is gone, and constantly questions his father as to why he cannot continue his mother's responsibilities the same way. Eventually, Ted and Billy form a genuine bond of affection and trust just as Joanne returns, announcing she wants custody of Billy. Traditionally, most courts have always sided with the mother in custody cases, but Ted refuses to let that happen.
If anything, Kramer vs. Kramer must have been a huge wake-up call to late-'70s America. Back in the '50s and '60s, divorce was still a relatively unheard of highway to travel on in ending a marriage. Most avoided it simply for security and the welfare and well-being of children, instead waiting until the home had become an empty nest. Women, in particular, felt locked in a situation they couldn't escape, a domestic dungeon which threatened to destroy whatever hopes and dreams they had left. As for men, they were beginning to come to grips with the ever-changing feminist climate, in which they finally realized what women had been craving for decades.
I watched Kramer Vs. Kramer for the first time when I was in high school, and I was taken aback at the idea that a mother would think of herself before her own child. She didn't deserve custody of him, and yet I still oddly sympathized with her for reasons I couldn't explain. It makes sense that Benton opts to open the film with her looking at her son, seriously contemplating one last time the unimaginable decision she's about to make. The coldness she gives to her husband is evident, and yet it's also warranted if you look at things from her point-of-view. Wisely, Benton doesn't make her character a spiteful bitch (a stereotypical choice), which ultimately doesn't make the film one-sided when it comes to gender, divorce, and custody. We come to respect Ted because he eventually realizes not only why his wife left but what he was doing wrong when he was working like a dog. When Joanna leaves, he's now suddenly given the task of being a father and it takes some time to master. It's only when he's able to convince Billy it wasn't his fault that his mother left in which come to trust and depend on each other. We root for him because we don't want that strong relationship destroyed, and yet Joanna simply doesn't see it, so we don't really blame her.
Hoffman and Streep both deservedly won Oscars playing the Kramers, but the real asset is Benton's script (based on a novel by Avery Corman). As soon as we fade in on Streep's face, we're hooked, and what follows is a series of events that feel real and even unscripted. The opening and closing breakfast scenes, the jungle gym-to-hospital sequence, and the courtroom scenes especially are heart-rending to the max. Nothing feels forced, and there isn't a false move committed for the sake of shock or cheap sentiment. This authenticity is no doubt what commanded Oscar's attention, honoring the film with five Oscars: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Direction. Also nominated were Justin Henry, Jane Alexander (as the Kramer's neighbor-friend Margaret), Nestor Almendros The Blue Lagoon) for his piquant cinematography, and Gerald Greenberg for his brilliant editing. The only moment the film could have dumped was a hilarious scene in which Henry encounters a nude JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist) in the hallway after having sex with his father. I'm glad Benton kept it in, even if the tone was a radical departure from the rest of the picture. It was too good to give up.
Surprisingly, Kramer Vs. Kramer holds up quite well 30 years later. Sure, there are clothes and hairstyles hopelessly out of the date, but the themes are still very much relevant and contemporary. Divorce and custody courts are ugly and painful to endure, as this film so proves, and the monologues both Kramers give in the courtroom sequences remain as important as they were back in 1979. Filled with poignant moments and powerhouse performances, it's really difficult to find anything wrong with Kramer Vs. Kramer and -- after my fifth viewing -- I can't identify any faults with it. If you haven't watched it yet, you owe to yourself to check it out. However, those who already own the 2001 DVD will likely not find any real reason to upgrade to high def. I've compared both discs and honestly can't spot much of a difference in terms of picture quality. Background detail and colors are a bit sharper (with brown and reds responding the best), but both prints are almost equal when it comes to flesh tones and black levels. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic print with AVC codec sports occasional grain and speckles, but not near enough to compromise your viewing experience.
Audio-wise, Sony treats us to three TrueHD 5.1 tracks (in English, French, and Portuguese), as well as an optional surround track in Spanish. There is very little music, but what there is delicately balanced between the front and rear speakers. Being a dialogue-driven film, the words are easily heard and understood, and never drowned out by background noise (especially from the N.Y.C. traffic). Purists may prefer a mono track, but everything is perfectly crisp with TrueHD. Subtitles are provided in English, English SDH and the three other languages mentioned before; closed captioning is also available. The sole bonus feature is a solid one: a nearly hour-long documentary "Finding The Truth," which contains interviews with Benton and much of the cast. The journey from book to Oscars is pretty much covered, and many insights and trivia are revealed...such as Streep's anger at Hoffman for smashing a wine glass without warning. BD Live is also included.
Considering that the 2001 DVD is available for only $8 on Amazon, I cannot recommend an upgrade. However, Kramer Vs. Kramer remains a superb drama that hasn't lost a bit of its impact, particularly after multiple viewings.
The film and Sony are found not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG