Friday, 15 October 2010

Flashback: Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer is one of those dozens upon dozens of films I sought out because of the Oscar attached to their name. I’m always looking to get edified on the tenets of good cinema, even though I can now admit that Oscar does not always equal good cinema. Kramer vs Kramer is as simple as family dramas. Joanna Kramer is unhappy in her marriage and rashly leaves her husband and six year old son. Over time Ted forges a strong relationship when Joana returns looking for custody of the child. When I reviewed the small town duo of Rebel Without a Cause and Picnic I noted that both films were deeply rooted in the zeitgeist. I figure that with the changing parental norms of the seventies Kramer vs Kramer was just as zeitgeist in its way, and in theory I suppose Ted's accomplishment is important for the time. The thing is it’s mostly all lost on me, and the rest of the time I don't really care.
I have a minor resentment of the generic family dramas after years of being forced to endure Lifetime with my mother and though Kramer vs Kramer is not overly generic it’s a film whose blandness leaves me slightly bored. The fact that it essentially swept the Oscars always fascinates me because its appeal often eludes me. The first half of the film tries to tread that line of vague poignancy. I know that Dustin Hoffman’s failed attempts at French toast have become an important moment in cinematic history and his bonding with Justin Henry (the youngest competitive Oscar nominee) is sweet in its way. The thing is one hour of mundane existence between a father and son leading into a courtroom battle that seems excessively contrived isn’t particularly riveting. I’ll put forth that Kramer vs Kramer’s principal issue is that in trying to be a film about the mundane it becomes mundane because it approaches its subject not like a Merchant Ivory production on life in the period era or a Woody Allen quasi-comedy, Kramer vs Kramer wants to be methodical and in becoming methodical it loses the spontaneity of real life and becomes bland – including the ending that seems intent on surprising us with its sincerity.It doesn't strike a resonating chord with me.

It’s unfortunate that Dustin Hoffman won two Oscars for less than interesting performances (though this is nowhere as abhorrent as Rain Man). It’s not so much that’s he subpar here, he’s just uninteresting. Streep is hit with a thankless, borderline ridiculous at times, role and she makes the best of it. Truthfully, though, it’s Jane Alexander’s well intended neighbour who comes off the best of the main cast. She’s the only character who seems to exist as a real person and not as pawns in whatever social commentary Benton (and Avery) are trying to make. Am I being unduly harsh on Kramer vs Kramer? Perhaps, it’s easy to forgive it its faults because it’s so unassuming – but that’s a double standard. Sometimes I wonder if an awful film with soul is better than a fair film with no imagination. Kramer vs Kramer falls in the latter grouping, naturally.
Was Kramer vs Kramer worthy of giving Meryl and Dustin their first Oscars?


Alex in Movieland said...

wow, I haven't seen this in a million years!!! all i remember about it is Jane Alexander shouting towards the end, the kid being an ass, some bycycle riding and Meryl crying in the court scene.

sure, it needs revisiting.

what fascinates me is how overrated it was at it's time. seriously, dear American critics, was this better directed than Apocalypse Now or Being There?

TomS said...

Walter, my apologiers for taking so long to respond...This is a meaty post and I would love to weigh in:
During the '70's there was a major shift occurring in Hollywood, between filmmakers, audiences, and critics. After the artistic renaissance of the late '60's and early '70s, with brilliant but admittedly bleak films,audiences grabbed on to safe and emotionally pleasing fare that somehow garnered critical acclaim. That's how I explain the Oscar victories of pictures like "Rocky"
('76), "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest ('75)", and "Kramer vs. Kramer" ('79). All of them entertaining, and purporting to treat topical subjects, but ultimately crowd-pleasers, "feel-good" films.
My votes would have gone to: "Network" (not Rocky), "Nashville" (not Cuckoo's Nest), and "All That Jazz" (instead of Kramer).
I think Streep, and especially Hoffman, were so hot that year based on previous work, that the Academy felt they needed to give them career honors. Hoffman had been overlooked for "Midnight Cowboy" and "The Graduate"; Streep had been strong in "The Deer Hunter" and TV's Holocaust series; but who knew she would give us "Sophie's Choice" and so many others?
This was a fun post...

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

alex awww, the kid wasn't that terrible.

tom hot damn, i might have to make you do a guest post. i've still never managed to really like one flew over the cuckoo's nest - though i've yet to see nashville (hangs head). was streep really THAT strong in the deer hunter, though? that was all walken for me.

Jose said...

NO is the answer to your final question.

And I totally agree with you about Alexander, this movie's just awful though! I don't know what the hell is wrong with the Academy, the 70's was perhaps the second best decade for cinema and their insipid Best Picture choices, especially in the last two years, shows nothing of the sort.
"The Deer Hunter" and this one always make me want to vomit.

Malcolm said...

I adored it, simply adored it.

Apocalypse Now was very accomplished, but also very messy. Kramer was simple, but tight and speaks in an emotional level.

Anonymous said...

The kid in this movie drives me bonkers. The best part is when he falls off the jungle gym. This is a decent little movie but certainly not Oscar-worthy. It's supposed strength is that it doesn't take sides but I don't know how you aren't supposed to side with Hoffman's character. The most realistic thing about the movie is that Streep's character is from Boston.