Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (Blu-ray Review)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Drama, 105 minutes
Dorected by Robert Benton
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry

We live in a world in which people watch movies to be thrilled and excited. It's difficult enough to pry someone away from their cell phone, tablet or PC for long enough to watch an entire movie. In order to cater to this trend, Hollywood has largely moved away from emotional dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer, replacing them with CGI-loaded blockbusters. If this movie had been made in 2014, there's an 87 percent chance that Ted would be a shape-shifting vampire with telekinetic powers.

That's a huge shame.

I watch my fair share of action, science fiction, and adventure movies, but most of my favorites are serious dramas. I like being made to feel something other than amazement at the visuals. Kramer vs. Kramer won five Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Watching the film in 2014, those awards still seem thoroughly deserved.

This is a great story because it's so real and believable. It opens with a scene in which Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is given a major promotion at work. He's thrilled at his success and eventually makes his way home to deliver the news to wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep). Unfortunately, Joanna is just finishing the task of packing her bags, and announces that she is leaving him. Ted can't believe her poor timing, but it's clear to us that work is his main priority.

The mood changes as the reality of Ted's situation sets in. Most of the events are told from his perspective, so it's easy to empathize with his problems. His boss wants him to be available 24/7, but that's impossible if you are responsible for an 8-year-old child. Ted has relied on Joanna to take care of his son, Billy (Justin Henry), and despite his false optimism, Ted has little idea of what is involved. This is apparent when we see Ted making French toast with Billy the morning after Joanna leaves. He doesn't even know what grade his son is in at school.

The charm and beauty of the story is that Ted does everything in his power to learn, improve, and be a good father. His work inevitably suffers, but Billy is happier. Ted's neighbor (Jean Alexander) was more of a friend to Joanna than to Ted, but she sees that he has changed. She's also separated herself, and she regularly hangs out with Ted while their kids play together.

As the title would suggest, there is a court case. Some 18 months after Ted has adapted his life to Billy's needs, Joanna reappears and says that she wants custody of Billy. You have to remember that the movie was made in 1979, and it was highly unusual for a court to rule in favor of a father over a mother. Ted loves his son and thinks that he has earned the right to raise him.

One thing that strikes me is the truthfulness present throughout the whole story. Instead of tearing each other apart inside and outside the courtroom, Ted and Joanna seem to respect one another. They genuinely want what is best for Billy. Neither of the parents are cast as villains, and the film is all the better for it. What we see is a family rationally coming to terms with the problems presented by a divorce. There's no sensationalism or anything written purely for effect.

Many of the scenes were improvised by the actors, especially when Billy was involved. Hoffman was about to be divorced in his real life at the time, and I'm sure he accessed some of those emotions. The result is a brilliant performance, and Streep was effective in her more limited time on the screen. I am not a parent, but I was thoroughly engrossed in Ted's life for 105 minutes.

The Blu-ray offers a pleasing upgrade and comes with just one special feature, Finding the Truth. However, this documentary does run for around 50 minutes and contains plenty of interesting information if you are a fan of the movie. The first cut of the film was 43 minutes longer, and it would be nice to see some of the scenes that were removed, but the story is tight and tense in its final form. This is why I own older movies and continually explore films I initially missed.

There is brief nudity, but it's quite humorous, and not a reason to prevent children from seeing the movie. 

Overall score 4.5/5

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