Generally liked upon release (but hated by Pauline Kael), Kramer vs. Kramer is probably best known today as the film that beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, Robert Benton’s divorce drama has not aged very well, and behind the structured ambiguity that allows viewers of all beliefs to find something to invest in and the smart control of emotion, there are huge flaws in both writing and theme.
Kramer vs. Kramer follows Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) as he learns to balance his Madison Avenue advertising job with the needs of his son Billy after his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) walks out on them. The usual suspects—too career focused, ignores her too much—are to blame. When we meet Ted, he stays at work late to chat with a friend, and when he gets home he is so dismissive of his wife in his rush to the phone that he does not even hear her say “I’m leaving you.” Ted and Billy are optimistic at first, but as time goes on Ted realizes he needs to learn to make breakfast for his son, take him to school, pick him up, and do everything a “mother” is supposed to do.
It is in this transition that Benton’s screenplay first reveals its flaws. Kramer changes, but he does not grow. One moment he is a bad father, the next he is passable, and then he is good. One moment he is a great worker, the next he makes a mistake in a presentation, the next he is incompetent enough to get fired. One moment he is critical and dismissive of Joanna’s friend Margaret, then he is friendly, then he trusts her entirely. He has an unmotivated one-night stand that is poorly played off as comic as if that excuses how inconsequential it is. The collection of events that lead to these transformations, big and small alike, all occur between scenes. Constant reminders of how long it has been since the divorce—first eight months, then fifteen, then eighteen—disguise the choppiness of the screenplay, but they also keep it from being unrealistic. As such, Kramer vs. Kramer usually works one scene at a time, giving us enough of the puzzle for us to see what the big picture is but not really caring enough to actually put them together. The saving grace is Hoffman, who moves past a cliché-ridden bout of overacting in the first few scenes to give his character nuance and emotional complexity. He is able to show concern for his dual-life, work and parenting, in any situation, but he is also able to pick moments that should be all family or all life. He portrays an increasingly ideal parent ideally but believably.
When Joanna comes back to sue for custody, however, Benton has to radically re-tone the film. He has to work against our strong identification with Ted as a changed person. His attempts get the point across, but do so far too simplistically and melodramatically. He does this first by linger on a pro-and-con list with an empty “pro” column that Ted makes with regards to fighting back for custody, and then, in reunion the between mother and child, highlighting unabashedly grandiose music. By the time court starts, we still side with Ted, but we realize we should also be sympathizing with Joanna.
Benton is bailed out by a characteristically great performance from Streep, who slowly convinces us that despite her desertion, she is worthy of a second chance. Still, the film aims for emotional manipulation rather than coherent statements, and its earnest belief that a father can be just as great a parent as a mother is undermined by the maliciousness of both lawyers, who ask such leading questions and demand direct answers to indirect questions that it plays more like a comic indictment of our legal system. The dialogue itself aims so relentlessly for our heart that these scenes become courtroom parodies.
We know how what the court will choose and we know why, but we still get a scene that makes the subtext explicit. After this, we are punished with a feel-good ending where a questioned designed to illuminate ambiguity actually enforces ideas of traditional motherhood. The ending impressions are not that fathers can be great (single) parents or the complexity of balancing work with parenthood, but of how unjust the court is and how venomous ambitious women and mothers can be. It is very effective on an emotional level, but once your head is clear, it gets worse the more you think about it. The strong performances cannot counteract the repelling messages, though they come off awfully close, and before the courtroom, they draw us in far more than they should.