Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 5, 2016)
As Iíve noted in other reviews, the Academy Awards tend to prefer period pieces, which is what made the Seventies an unusual time. From 1971 to 1980, a whopping six of the 10 Best Picture winners took place in then-contemporary settings.
Even the films with older settings didnít always stray far from home. For example, 1978ís The Deer Hunter used the very-recent past, and parts of 1974ís The Godfather Part II went back only a couple of decades. Only 1973ís The Sting and 1972ís The Godfather were firmly set in moderately long-gone eras.
Contrast that with 1961-1970, with three contemporary films (1961ís West Side Story, 1967ís In the Heat of the Night, and 1969ís Midnight Cowboy). 1981-1990 offered only two then-current settings (1983ís Terms Of Endearment and 1988ís Rain Man). The next decade fared no better; from 1991-2000, we found only two more contemporary flicks (1991ís The Silence of the Lambs and 1999ís American Beauty).
I guess the Academy was a little more adventurous in the Seventies, but I can somewhat understand Oscarís preference for period fare. Movies with then-current settings can much more easily suffer from the wear and tear of aging, as they donít always stand up very well past their eras. Look at older flicks like Gentlemanís Agreement or The Lost Weekend; these seem quite dated now.
Happily, 1979ís Kramer Vs. Kramer largely avoids those traps, mainly because it has little to do specifically with its era. The movie revolves around the family of husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman), wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) and son Billy (Justin Henry). At the start of the film, Joanna abandons the other two; she seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and she no longer loves Ted enough to remain with him.
Tedís a go-go advertising man, and his work clearly consumes his life. As such, heís not developed much of a connection with Billy, but he now needs to get a crash course in parenting. Much of the film follows the evolution of their relationship, as we see Ted go from helpless and distant to controlled and loving.
Though things eventually go well between father and son, dark clouds loom when Joanna reenters the picture after 15 months away from them. She becomes determined to regain custody of her son, and that sets up a furious battle between her and Ted, who feels equally resolute.
Apocalypse Now remains my pick for the best film of 1979. It offers a much more ambitious and epic form than does Kramer, though it also falls short of many of its goals; the last third of Apocalypse still borders on unwatchability. Kramer shoots lower but hits more consistently. In some eyes, that may make it superior, but Iíll take the greater aim of Apocalypse.
Nonetheless, I do find Kramer to be a surprisingly compelling piece of work. For reasons unclear to me, I went into it with a modestly negative mindset. Iíd seen it before, but itíd been many years, so that prior experience didnít count for much.
Perhaps I retained the memory of the filmís most famous scene, the one in which Billy disobeys his father and eats ice cream. Out of context, that segment seems awfully cute and cloying, and I may have feared the whole film would work in such a way.
Happily, it doesnít. Instead, we get a fairly engrossing examination of the developing bond between father and son, and the movie convincingly depicts the strain put on a single parent, especially one with so little experience. Actually, much of Kramer reminds me of the Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar, which also features a crummy father who learns to appreciate his son. Of course, the latter goes for a wilder tone, but some similarities exist.
Both Hoffman and Streep won Oscars for their work in Kramer, and costars Henry and Jane Alexander received nominations as well. I donít know how much I agree with the awards, at least in the case of Hoffman.
Streep receives fairly little screen time, but she makes the most of it; you feel as though Joanna plays a much stronger role than she actually does. Streepís work here doesnít match up with stellar performances like her turn in Sophieís Choice - for which she won another Oscar - but she does make Joanna a more prominent and memorable character than otherwise might have been likely.
As for Hoffman, I must admit Iíve never been a great fan of his work. To be sure, I like him, but I find many of his performances to contain a showy element that makes them seem moderately forced.
The same elements emerge during Kramer, particularly in the earliest scenes. Hoffman tries to so hard to compress all of the aspects of Tedís personality into little balls that it doesnít flow naturally. Hoffmanís work improves as the movie progresses, however, and he gets more deeply within the characterís skin.
Speaking of Hoffman, as an aside I was interested to note his unusual string of Best Picture winners. For three straight decades, he starred in an Oscar-winning flick about every ten years: 1969ís Midnight Cowboy, 1979ís Kramer, and 1988ís Rain Man. Too bad 1999ís The Messenger had to break his run!
As a whole, Kramer Vs. Kramer offers a fairly satisfying drama. It takes a rich and honest look at the collapse of a relationship and a fatherís bond with his son. Overall it provides a well-executed piece of work that delivers an interesting experience.