The premise behind this film is not overly promising. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) walks out on her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and son when she decides that she wants to live her own life. Ted has to change his life completely in order to become a single parent. Just has he is adjusting to this new life, Joanne returns and wants custody of their child.
There were so many films in the emotional family drama genre made in the 1980s, and they range from thoroughly watchable to absolutely dire, and then there is ‘Kramer vs Kramer’: easily the best film of this genre that I have seen.
But what makes it so good?
I have already written about my opinions on Dustin Hoffman in his other performances and ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is another example of a great performance. Here is plays an everyday character unlike in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ or ‘Rain Man’, but still manages to create a person that is thoroughly watchable and that you want to know more about. I admire more these convincing normal roles than some of the more over the top Oscar winning performances over the ages because there is nothing for Hoffman to hide behind.
Streep also picked up the Oscar for Supporting Actress in this film. Meryl Streep is as diverse as Hoffman, and can play any role with conviction. As with Hoffman’s performance, this is one of her more normal characters and her acting is just outstanding.
Add to these wonderful performances some excellent supporting roles from Jane Alexander as the family friend and Justin Henry as the eight year old son: incredible for such a young actor.
Add to these performances a script that is poignant, realistic but also full of wit and gentle humour which gives the actors something great to work with. The script combined with the sensitive direction stops the film from falling into contrived nonsense, which is found in so many of these types of dramas. But it’s still extremely emotional: the ending is unexpectedly tearjerking but not in an over-the-top manner, but because of the realistic portrayal of a family torn apart.
‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is what family drama should be about. There are no unlikely twists, no over the top performances, such a few characters put in a realistic but sad situation and forced to deal with it. I don’t know if with a different cast that this would have worked, but with the leads of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep this becomes a terrific film.