Review: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Director/Screenwriter: Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander, Howard Duff
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Release Dates: 12/19/79 (Wide Theatrical); 8/28/01 (Disc/Streaming)
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy — Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

Kramer vs. Kramer is, in a way, the spiritual and thematic successor to Marriage Story. Yet, while the newer film focuses on the rift between the soon-to-be-divorced couple, the former focuses on the impact of the divorce and separation on the couple’s young son. And, Kramer vs. Kramer features many more scenes with Dustin Hoffman than with Meryl Streep, who both (deservedly) won their first Oscars for these roles.

Hoffman’s dad is, at first, a typical workaholic who hasn’t really spent that much time with the couple’s son, played by an astonishing Justin Henry, who at age 8 still holds the record for the youngest actor ever nominated for an Oscar. Then there’s Jane Alexander, also nominated, as a friend of both Hoffman’s and Streep’s characters who wants to help both of them. Hoffman presents his character as someone fairly unlikable at first; he doesn’t seem to be the best (or even a good) parent). But then, as you see the bond between father and son start to grow into something spectacular, you feel empathy towards the father — after all, the mother (Streep) abandoned them to basically go find herself.

And, because of that fact, one might expect the audience to despise the mother. But, because Streep’s performance is so heart-wrenching and convincing, you begin to feel empathy for her, too. In that sense, this film is like Marriage Story, as it doesn’t force you to choose sides. However, I found myself more drawn to the father’s plight, even though both sides had made mistakes.

I am fortunate to have never seen first-hand the effects of divorce on either the couple or the child(ren), but from I can gather, Kramer vs. Kramer is as authentic a study/examination into this subject matter as can be. It is also wonderful to see Streep and Hoffman acting their butts off, and to be rewarded as such. Apparently, they did not get along that well while filming, which lends itself to their performances. Henry shows exceptional range for a child actor, especially in one scene when he simply breaks down and starts crying. (How many child actors can cry like that on command?) The final shot is simply terrific, one that is surprisingly semi-positive.

A

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