Tony Mastroianni Review Collection
Divorce, Hoffman -- Streep Style
Cleveland Press June 25, 1971
"Kramer vs. Kramer" is the kind of movie which grows on you. It is so well made that you may not be aware at the time how much skill and artistry have gone into it.
It is a whole bunch of other movies rolled into one, but it is not derivative. It is definitely singular. It covers old ground with integrity and a high degree of insight.
It takes familiar people, familiar situations and then treats them with a mixture of intelligence and art rarely combined on the screen.
The movie is about the breakup of a marriage, about two people who drifted apart without knowing it at the time, about their child who is caught in the crossfire, about their friends and -- most of all -- about characters who grow and change.
It is that last aspect of "Kramer vs. Kramer" which make all the other aspects come together in something other than the soap opera the ingredients suggest.
The film says much without preaching, is a product of our times without being trendy.
Screenwriter-director Robert Benton has managed to strip away everything from the story except what really counts.
Nestor Almendros' photography zeros in on people in a way to stress their isolation, their moods. The spare music, bits of Purcell and Vivaldi, add to the atmosphere.
Most of all, "Kramer vs. Kramer" is blessed with one of the best casts ever assembled for a movie.
Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a successful ad agency executive with success-bent workaholic habits.
Meryl Streep is Joanna, his wife, whose quiet desperation over her loss of identity and self worth have gone unnoticed by her husband.
The movie opens on the isolated image of the sad faced mother saying good night and, as it turns out, goodbye as well to her sleeping son, Billy (Justin Henry).
In spite of her action, some sympathy will be with her in the beginning because of her husband's unawareness, his we'll-talk-about-it-tomorrow attitude.
From there on the film becomes the story of a growing father-son relationship. In a series of short, sometimes funny, often poignant scenes, the two learn to cope with life and with each other.
There is a gradual transition from awkwardness to harmony, from independence to mutual dependence. Ted Kramer changes from ad man to father, and as priorities shift, his career goes down the drain.
There are wonderful father-son scenes -- confrontation, fun and sadness.
One particularly moving moment occurs when the father assures his son that the boy's mother did not leave because of dislike for the boy, but that it was his, the father's fault.
When Joanna Kramer re-enters the movie two-thirds of the way through to claim her son, sympathy will have shifted entirely to the father.
The ensuing court battle has its moments of nastiness, but there are indications -- a look, a half phrase -- of a lingering affection and respect if not love.
Benton presents it as a no-win situation, inflicts no one with a villain label.
The ending may seem contrived, an attempt to make everyone happy. But it is also an ending which goes full circle with its image of sadness and frustration.
Hoffman has never been better. All the nuances are there --cockiness, anger, worry, determination, sadness -- without giving the impression of overacting.
Meryl Streep, in a brief role, once again shows what a skillful actress can do. There are few performers who can express pain and joy with a look, a glance the way she can.
Jane Alexander is perfect as the neighbor with affection for both parties. Howard Duff as the attorney manages to let you know that he's a high priced lawyer even before he mentions his fee.
But it is young Justin Henry who Is the miracle of the movie. His mood, his actions and reactions, his laughter, his tears are right for every scene. He gives the impression that the camera was eavesdropping on real life.
It's possible that "Kramer vs. Kramer" will evoke reactions colored by the sex and/or experiences of each particular viewer.
But I can think of no other of the growing group of movies about marital relationships which treats each of the parties with greater objectivity, with fewer attempts at setting up a good vs. evil situation.