Welcome to Week 5…. ish of the 52-Week Movie Challenge (Look all I am saying is please don’t count the days between these posts). This week’s challenge was to choose an early film of a famous actor. For a little bit of fun, I put the choice of actor to a vote on our Facebook page and, unsurprisingly, Meryl Streep (aka The GOAT) won in landslide fashion. With the issue of which actor squared away, I only had one decision left: The Film. For me this was easy. Kramer vs. Kramer has long been on my list despite the fact that I had zero prior knowledge of the plot or who was involved. Do you ever have that happen? Where there’s something you want to do or see and you have no idea why but still the urge persists? Just me? Okay, I digress. Anywho, I chose Kramer vs. Kramer and you can read my full thoughts (beware spoilers) below.
Winner of five Academy Awards, Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 drama based on the Avery Coman novel of the same name. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, the film tells the story of Ted (Hoffman) and Joanna Kramer (Streep), a couple who suddenly find themselves on the brink of divorce and a lengthy and nasty custody battle over their seven-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry). Both Meryl Streep (Best Supporting Actress) and Dustin Hoffman (Best Actor) took home Oscars for their performances.
I feel the need to add a caveat at the beginning of this review because it is as if someone built a movie specifically for me. You know by now that I am an absolute sucker for a human story. In my opinion, nothing beats real human relationships. The depth and complexity of human relationships juxtaposed against the simplicity and routineness of everyday life is among the most beautiful narrative tools that exist. When used effectively, I believe it creates cinematic moments that are more emotionally impactful than anything outside of this genre can achieve. So, Kramer vs. Kramer already had a leg up in my book based on its subject matter alone. That said, this movie does a lot really really well. So let’s dive into it.
The first signal that Kramer vs. Kramer is in a different league comes in the first 10 minutes. In the first few moments, it is clear that this film has mastered the art of context. I cannot overstress how important context is in screenwriting. With any given scene, writers are tasked with telling their audiences just enough, not too much not too little. If they tell their audience too much (especially with dialogue), they ruin the authenticity and potentially eliminate the effectiveness of a certain plot device. If they tell them too little, they leave the audience confused and risk them losing interest altogether. Writers must trust the audience to infer (or sometimes even guess) plot points to protect the narrative. It’s an abstract concept and one that I am admittedly struggling to explain, but the best films in the drama category have mastered the art of context and Kramer vs. Kramer no different. Let’s look at an example:
Believe it or not, this is the first scene we get with Ted and Joanna. It happens within the first 10 minutes of the film. Talk about a barnburner! But look at what the writers and director have done here. We know nothing about these characters at this point other than Joanna is a mother (as evidenced by her opening scene putting Billy to bed) and Ted works at an agency of some sort. But what do we learn? We learn that Ted is a chronic workaholic, that Joanna is a career homemaker, that they have a history of arguments like this, that Ted is forgetful, that Joanna has ambitions, and on and on and on. Now, how do we learn all of this? Is it explicitly said? NO! It is implied, and masterfully so. See, these people already know each other very well. So realistically, they are not going to say all of those statements I listed above. Instead, the writers have trusted us, the audience, to infer some of the details in their relationship while keeping the authenticity of the dialogue intact. Kramer vs. Kramer is chock-full of scenes just like the one above, which keeps the movie rock-solid in terms of its realism. But it is not the only way area in which the film excels.
Somewhat surprisingly, Kramer vs. Kramer is also superb thematically. The reason I say “surprisingly” is that realism and themes don’t often naturally coincide. It is much easier to drive home central themes in more avant garde films due to the creative control you have over the delivery of those themes. In dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer, however, it can be difficult to layer in powerful themes without risking the realism of the film. This exact challenge is why a lot of films in the genre tend to be more like portrait pics in nature. But Kramer vs. Kramer tackles a lot of heavy themes. Most notably, the gender role themes are especially prominent and seemingly ahead of their time. In fact, Marriage Story (2019) just came out last year and deals with very similar themes about gender roles. Now, Marriage Story‘s gender role themes are a bit more implicit but it has been FORTY YEARS after all. Needless to say, I was impressed to see a movie from 1979 forcing people to ask themselves questions like “why are women just expected to want to be moms” and “why are men automatically assumed to worse parents?” Historical context is everything in this instance.
That said, I did find it slightly irresponsible to paint a woman and mother as the antagonist in a film at a time when gender equality was even farther away than it is now. That’s not to say that father’s rights weren’t (and still are) an issue. I’m just saying there were perhaps bigger fish to fry at that time. But maybe my biases are showing. Maybe the only reason I think Joanna was an antagonist is that I am a husband and a father and she abandons her role as a wife and a mother. I’m not sure. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Finally, my favorite part of Kramer vs. Kramer is how beautifully it captures parenthood. To be clear once more, the film does not beautify parenthood but rather shows it in all its beauty. These parents are far from perfect. They have angry outbursts in front of their child, they forget him at school, and they even put their needs above their son’s at times. But they love their kid more than anything. As someone with two little boys, this imperfect but perfect depiction of parenthood really hit home and I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry multiple times watching this movie. It even had a scene where Ted ran his bleeding son into an ER to get stitches, something I had to do earlier this year. Again, this movie was practically made for me.
I was floored by how much I liked this movie. In many ways, it is very similar to Marriage Story from late last year but I would say that Kramer vs. Kramer ran so Marriage Story could soar. Both movies are fantastic and both earn whopping Kernel Scores from me. I cannot recommend this movie enough!
Kernel Score: 9.5/10
We are getting in the swing of things now! Looking ahead, Week 6’s challenge is to watch a movie “With Subtitles.” If you are anything like me, every movie is a movie with subtitles (#Captions4Lyfe), but for the purposes of this exercise, I decided to choose a foreign film. Over the next week, watch the Indian epic Baahubali: The Beginning with me and come back here this time next week for the next edition of the 52-Week Movie Challenge Blog. Thanks for reading!