Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Unemployment Movie Marathon: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

(Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures via

There have been many recent entries in my ongoing "Unemployment Movie Marathon" -- yes, I decided to give it a name -- and I don't think Kramer vs. Kramer has necessarily been the best or my favorite of my recent, non-blogged entries. But there's something about the film that struck me and is worth my brief and humble two cents.

I'm not sure I'd even go so far as to call Kramer v. Kramer a great film. It's Oscar win over Apocalypse Now for 1980's Best Picture is the sort of travesty that has given the Academy Awards its reputation for utter uselessness. 30 years after its theatrical release, Kramer v. Kramer feels striking to me because it's the sort of film you really don't see coming out of the Hollywood mainstream anymore. It's a bit melodramatic and over-the-top at times, but for the most part and especially considering the story at hand, the film is remarkably restrained.

There's no real emotional manipulation, no tear-jerking or tugging of the ole heartstrings. It's astounding to think that Robert Benton was responsible for directing 2007's weepy, contrived garbage indie flick, Feast of Love. As both screenwriter and director on Kramer vs. Kramer, Benton's approach is 100 percent no nonsense. Nestor Almendros -- shooting in a visually toned down palette from his sweeping photographic masterwork on Days of Heaven -- most lets the camera observe statically. The action and emotion comes out within the frame, much thanks to Dustin Hoffman's and Meryl Streep's excellent work (they both took home Oscars that year for their roles, Benton took home one for direction and one for acting).

It's a pretty straightforward arc -- Hoffman is a workaholic whose wife (Streep) leaves him and his 7-year-old boy high and dry in NYC. Kramer (Hoffman) battles with his high pressure advertising job while trying to raise his kid, Mrs. Kramer reappears, litigation insues. There's nothing incredibly bold in the script or execution, which is also to say that nothing is overintellectualized. Benton lays out the relationships and once the wheels are in motion, it all just clicks.

The closest thing I can think of in recent memory is this year's unjustly shafted Two Lovers, which I should note was distributed by Magnolia Pictures, i.e. not one of the major studios. Both films, Two Lovers and K vs. K, get a little sappy here and there but ultimately the films are just about failed relationships. James Gray and Benton, respectively, get you to invest in their characters and they don't pull any cheap tricks to keep your attention.

And here's the kicker - Kramer vs. Kramer pulled in $106 million, which according to the first inflation calculator that came up on Google, would be roughly $310 million today. In short, the movie cleaned up at the box office. I don't know if the moviegoing audiences of 1979 were so radically different from those of 2009 (to be fair, Hollywood was just beginning to discover the blockbuster), but I can't imagine any big studio exec. hedging their bets on a film as plainspoken as Kramer vs. Kramer.

The film really comes with no strings attached, and that's rare today. Even the film's so-called happy finale feels uncompromised, because in the end, a marriage has still been dissolved and both Kramers have had to endure the pain of being dragged through the mud in court. Divorce is ugly and there may be no complete recovery for either party.

Benton has the decency not to beat his audience over the head, a courtesy we are rarely shown at the movies. One single shot says it all to me -- Kramer is in bed with his son, Billy, reading him a bedtime story just after his ex-wife has announced she will seek custody. It's a lovely personal moment between father and son, but it's threatening too. The open door is only a sliver in the frame, a drastic take on the traditional doorway framing shot.

It's a simple, static shot (until Kramer gets up), but at the same time, there's complexity to it. On one hand, the walls seem to be closing in on the father and son, and it looks impossible -- they're barely present. But that little sliver, all they're afforded in the shot, is very warm and alive. There's something safe about that little space, as if nothing in the world could breach what the two of them share.

Anyway, that's what I got. Stay alert, a Bruno review is on its way.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writeup! It's nice to know that the film still has relevance today, and the ability to strike a chord -- whether pleasant or not. When my uncle Avery Corman wrote the book in 1977 it was considered revolutionary in that this was the era of "Women's Lib" and nobody talked about the rights of men, let alone those involving custody. Even today the word "Kramer" is often used as a generic term to describe relationships where the man is both mommy and daddy to a child left asunder after a failed marriage. For those seeing the film today it's hard for them to imagine the impact that it had at the time.