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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Kramer vs. Kramer (review)

Generation X: The Early Years

I wonder where Billy Kramer would be today. Six years old when his self-indulgent, self-involved yuppie parents split, in Kramer vs. Kramer, the poor tyke is traumatized by his mother’s abandonment of him and his father’s halfhearted (at first) attempts at parenting, and even the very last scene of the movie, which is supposed to make us cheer for his mother’s last-minute change of heart, is just another example of the constant jerking around the little guy receives from his parents.
Workaholic Ted (Dustin Hoffman) lingers at the office chatting with his boss while his wife Joanne (Meryl Streep) is home packing her bags. When he finally shows up, her announcement that she is leaving him is a bolt from the blue — this is the first indication that she’s unhappy in the marriage. Of course, he’s never home to hear her. He’s absent; she’s silent — a match made for divorce attorneys. So, dealing with their problems like a rational adult, she storms out, leaving their son, Billy (Justin Henry), behind.

I guess we’re meant to be sympathetic for Ted, left alone with this stranger of a child (he doesn’t even know what grade his son is in). Here’s a man who is in total control at work, who can juggle together a big presentation overnight yet can’t organize a simple breakfast for his son. Soon enough, though, the two Kramer men settle into a bachelor routine of doughnuts for breakfast and TV dinners in the evening.

Juggling a career and a kid, a home and PTA meetings… Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? Ah, but it’s a guy doing the juggling here. Drama! Tragedy!

More than a year later, Joanna, who’s “found herself” in the meantime, pops up again to demand ownership of their joint property: Billy. This is when the lawyers start to have fun — custody battle lines are drawn.

Why do people like the Kramers have kids? It’s almost impossible for me to feel generous toward either of them. Neither is mature enough to deal with the ordinary sorts of problems life throws at them. Joanna doesn’t know how to assert herself, stewing till she explodes, and it’s only sheer necessity that gets Ted involved in his own child’s life. It’s impossible to guess whether little Billy would have been better off if his parents hadn’t separated, because divorce isn’t really the problem — having two such selfish people for parents is.

My snideness is not intended to denigrate Kramer vs. Kramer per se — it’s sharply written and every performance, especially Justin Henry’s (who showed up in episodes of ER a few years back), is a marvel. No, I just don’t see much to like in the lifestyle and true-to-life characters this movie so precisely depicts.

Billy today is probably living in a basement apartment with three roommates, playing drums in a fourth-rate bar band, and working at Kinko’s during the day. Ted and Joanna probably despair for his future. Serves them right.

Best Picture 1979
unforgettable movie moment:
Ted reads a letter from Joanna to Billy, explaining that she’s gone away to “find something interesting to do in the world.” If that’s not enough to smash a kid’s self-esteem, I don’t know what is.

previous Best Picture:
1978: The Deer Hunter
next Best Picture:
1980: Ordinary People


MPAA: rated PG

viewed at home on a small screen

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