Friday, February 12, 2016

Kramer vs. Kramer

Coming up on TCM this evening at 10:00 PM is Kramer vs. Kramer.

Ted Kramer is played by Dustin Hoffman. Ted works as an adman in New York, earning a good enough salary that he can live in a pretty reasonable Manhattan apartment with his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) and their young son Billy (Justin Henry. In fact, the salary is good enough that Joanna doesn't need to go out to work to help support the family, something which has left Joanna feeling unfulfilled, a fact that Ted seems to know fairly little about. Joanna apparently spends her days having a lot of time to talk to the Kramers' mutual friend Margaret (Jane Alexander), who lives in the same apartment building. Margaret is also a recent divorcée.

Even if Kramer vs. Kramer weren't such a well-known movie, you might have been able to guess what was going to happen just from the title. Certainly the presence of Margaret should make it obvious that Joanna is going to get ideas, and sure enough, one day she just gets up and leaves, leaving poor Ted to pick up the pieces of a shattered marriage while also trying to raise a young son. It's long been a trope, especially of TV adverts in the US, that men are incompetent when it comes to domestic matters, so it's certainly not an easy task for Ted, especially because Billy had gotten used to, and liked, the way Mom did a lot of the domestic things. Ted may have strong negative feelings for his wife, but Billy isn't really old enough to develop them for Mom independently.

Still, Ted does the best he can, and while developing a closer (but still platonic) friendship with Margaret, he does become a competent single parent, to the point that Billy is at least halfway OK with the whole relationship, not that there's a whole lot he can do about it anyway. The bad news is that Ted's focussing on his son is causing problems in other areas of his life, problems that are all about to come together in one fell swoop.

Ted's boss at the ad agency points out to Ted that the time spent taking care of his son has been taking away not just from time at the office, but from focusing on the duties of the job, to the point that his job performance is really suffering. So the boss just up and summarily fires Ted. Meanwhile, Joanna (whom we've been seeing in a series of long shots throughout the movie watching Ted and especially Billy) has met another man and has gotten it in her mind that perhaps now should be the time for her to get custody of Billy.

And so, we get a custody hearing in which each of the parties gets its chance to tell the judge just why the other party is so horrible. Sure, Joanna just up and left, but then, it was apparently Ted's idea for her to be a stay-at-home mom, not hers. Unfortunately, the judge here isn't going to be able to convince the Kramers to come back together the way the judge in The Marrying Kind did with the Keefers.

Kramer vs. Kramer is an outstanding movie filled with good performances, and one that for the most part seems highly realistic (other than the scene of Dad running through the streets of New York carrying his injured son, which I found a bit silly). Marriages don't always work, and this can be difficult on everybody, not just the children. Poor Billy certainly isn't old enough to comprehend why Mom should suddenly come back into his life and decide that he should be forced to live full-time with her, especially after he's grown to form a fairly strong emotional bond with Dad. And Mom and Dad both take a long time to learn how they've screwed up each other's lives. I think that the film does ultimately want us to have a little more sympathy for Dad considering how long he had to spend raising Billy alone, but Ted Kramer is certainly not a flawless character.

If you haven't seen Kramer vs. Kramer before, do yourself a favor and watch it.

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