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KRAMER VS. KRAMER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander
Director:  Robert Benton
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  BD LIVE, Documentary
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  February 17, 2009

“You may not want to hear this right now, but it took a lot of courage for her to leave you.”

“Oh, yeah?  And how much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?”

Film ****

When the stenographer in Kramer vs. Kramer, who was a real court reporter, spoke to Dustin Hoffman about her work, he asked her if she had seen many divorce cases.  Too many, she replied, and she very much hated them, because they were far too painful.  She claimed to be much happier in her current position.  What was that, Hoffman wondered?  “Homicides,” she answered.

Divorce is indeed a terrible procedure to go through for two people who once loved each other.  It becomes even harder when children are involved.  That’s why Kramer vs. Kramer has held such a special place in my heart for more than twenty years.  No other picture before it explored the subject of divorce with as much honesty and compassion.  No movie has since, either, and frankly, there’s not much point in trying.  This film, written for the screen and directed by Robert Benton, really says everything there is to say.

There’s no melodrama at play here at all, simply quiet, agonizing heartbreak.  As the movie opens on a luminously sad image of Joanna Kramer (Streep) repeating “I love you” to her little son, Billy (Henry), we don’t know what’s wrong.  We get an impression of her life as her husband Ted (Hoffman) breezes in, and barely notices that she’s packed and leaving him.  The movie shows its courage in numerous ways here:  one, our glimpse of Joanna is fleeting, but manages to be enough to stay in our minds for a long while, which is crucial.  Two, we’re looking at a couple where there’s no infidelity, no alcohol or drug abuse, no financial problems, and no violence, which are the easy roads most pictures take.  Here are two people whose problems run much deeper than any surface categorization.

Ted is a wunderkind ad executive who, for the first time in his life, is in a position to have a relationship with his son.  The opening breakfast scene is funny and touching, as Ted tries to keep smiling and ad-libbing, though he can’t do anything right.  He may be the best with his clients, but he’s nervous and like a stranger with his own kid.

The heart of the movie is Ted’s evolution as the values and dynamics of his life slowly change.  With hopes of his wife’s return fading more every day, the career oriented Ted has to learn to be father and mother to Billy.  It’s a learning process.  He isn’t always patient, he’s sometimes still self-absorbed, and he doesn’t always do the right thing.  A memorable scene pushes both of them to the edge, when Billy defies his father about some ice cream.  “I hate you!” he screams and cries.  “I want my mommy!”  “I’m all you’ve got!” Ted retorts as he slams the door.  But this leads to one of the film’s many heart-wrenching scenes, when he apologizes and tries to make his son understand that his mother didn’t leave because of him, Billy, but because he, Ted, failed.

After eighteen months, Ted really changes.  He’s no longer the workaholic that put him at the top of his game, nor is he even AT the top of his game anymore.  But he’s developed a close, loving relationship with his little boy that nothing can threaten.  Nothing, that is, until a broken hearted Joanna returns to their lives and announces she wants her son back.

Joanna remains the film’s most enigmatic figure.  When I was a kid and saw the picture for the first time, I didn’t feel much sympathy for her.  It seemed to my young mind that the time to venture out and find yourself is before you have a child dependant on you.  What could be worse for a kid than to have his mother just walk out on him?  I chalked her up as selfish.

I understand many more things in life these days, including depression, low self esteem, and loss of personal identity.  When Joanna first leaves, you can feel the pain dripping from every word as she answers Ted about Billy:  “He’s better off without me.”  It’s clear she’s at a point where she can’t go any lower, though the film never explores the history of this marriage any deeper than a few courtroom statements during the finale.  And I actually like that about the film…it’s very present-oriented.  It’s not concerned with how a marriage comes apart, only with the aftermath and how it affects all involved, even the innocents.  And if Joanna makes some bad judgment calls in the picture, Ted certainly does to.  Both are human, and venturing into uncharted waters.

Dustin Hoffman gives what I personally consider the best performance of his career as Ted.  The role won him his first Academy Award, and it was well deserved.  Ted is one of the most complex of movie characters, and he’s that way because he’s one of the most real.  Going through his own divorce at the same time he made the movie must have been difficult, but he never shied away from the pain, the anger, or the fear the part made him confront and harness.  Also good are the magnificent Meryl Streep, who works miracles with small amounts of screen time, and newcomer Justin Henry, who became the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar with his performance.

The film instantly became a part of American consciousness, and has never really left it in the years since.  It hasn’t grown less topical with time; if anything, it’s become even more so.  It hasn’t aged.  It hasn’t lost potency.  By forgoing the most obvious stirrings of melodrama and instead concentrating on simple human truths treated with real emotion, it remains as moving today as it ever was, and maintains its place as a true American masterpiece.

Video ***1/2

What an impressive anamorphic transfer!  I didn’t expect much, given the age of the film, and given that I never really recalled it as being cinematographically impressive, but I was quite wrong.  I’ve never seen this picture look so good for home video before, and I was actually surprised to see how much detail and effort actually went into the set designs, lighting, and art direction.  Colors are perfectly natural looking throughout and well rendered, and images are sharply drawn with excellent levels of detail.  Flesh tones are remarkable, but even more noticeable is how different shades of one color in a scene take on slightly different hues; each rendered with integrity and adding a nice dynamic to the visuals.  Grain is only barely seen in one or two very bright shots, but it isn’t a distraction.  Overall, this is a very commendable effort.

Audio **1/2

There's not much demand on the TrueHD soundtrack, but there is a bit of added dynamic range here and there, and more ambient sounds, especially in the few outdoor scenes.

Features **1/2

The main feature is a good one: a new retrospective documentary featuring recent interviews with Robert Benton, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander and more.  Hoffman offers plenty of insights into his acting approach for this movie, including improvised moments and the coaching of young Mr. Henry in his role.  There is also BD LIVE support for your Ethernet-capable player.

Summary:

Kramer vs. Kramer is a beautiful, truthful and touching movie with a lot of courage.  Placing blame, pointing fingers and making scenes is easy; forgoing all of that and simply asking, “what happens now?” is a challenge few artists are really up to.  This is an engaging film that looks quite remarkable on Blu-ray.

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