Columbia Pictures has the perfect Christmas offering. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is a perceptive, touching, intelligent film about one of the raw sores of contemporary America, the dissolution of the family unit. It’s a tribute to writer-director Robert Benton, along with leads Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Justin Henry, that “Kramer” is about people, not abstract stereotypes. The Stanley Jaffe production should be greeted with warm boxoffice response from a wide variety of audiences.
Stories on screen about men leaving women, and women leaving men have been abundant as of late, but hardly any has grappled with the issue in such a forthright and honest fashion as “Kramer.” In refashioning Avery Corman’s novel for the screen, Benton has used a highly effective technique of short, poignant scenes to bring home the message that no one escapes unscarred from the trauma of separation, divorce and battles over child custody.
It is in the latter arena that “Kramer” takes place, as Meryl Streep breaks with up-and-coming ad exec Hoffman and tyke Henry to find her own role in life, “outside of being somebody’s daughter, or wife or mother.” Hoffman is thus left with a six-year-old son he barely knows, and begins a process of “parenting” that is both humorous and affecting.
Benton weaves his story so skillfully that the growing emotional impact of the relationship between Hoffman and Henry never becomes sentimental, nor does Streep’s melodramatic reentry three-quarters into the film, when she comes to claim her first-born with the traditional mother’s prerogative.
While a nasty court battle ensues, the human focus is never abandoned, and it’s to the credit of not only Benton and Jaffe, but especially Hoffman and Streep, that both leading characters emerge as credible and sympathetic.
If Benton’s direction was not so smooth and effortless, Hoffman could have “stolen” the picture with the force and dynamism of his performance, his best in years. Willing to abandon a bright future under the tutelage of ad agency topper George Coe, Hoffman runs the gamut of emotional responses while never losing contact with reality. Moppet Henry, a tyro performer, offers the perfect counterbalance to Hoffman, without descending into kiddie schtick.
Streep again shines in a “minor” role she manages to make “major,” and rest of cast is likewise superior, especially Jane Alexander as a friend of the couple who switches allegiances, Howard Duff as Hoffman’s realistic lawyer, and Jobeth Williams as a one-night stand for Hoffman.
Technically, “Kramer” is breathtaking, with Nestor Almendros’ haunting imagery perfectly illuminating Paul Sylbert’s rich settings. Special mention should also be made of Jerry Greenberg’s smooth editing, and especially the musical choice of selection by Henry Purcell and Antonio Vivaldi. In a year when film music has sometimes overshadowed the screen action, the classical excerpts bestow an additional patina on a pie that already glows.