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By Andrew Watson · June 13, 2011
Kramer vs. Kramer. The title alone says it all. This is a film about family, about conflict, and about winning or losing the battle. But Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is not just facing one opponent; there will be three bouts of Kramer vs. Kramer: Ted vs. his wife, Ted vs. his son, and Ted vs. himself. Whether he wins each fight or not becomes secondary in the end because it’s clear the journey of taking on each obstacle will change an incredibly flawed man into someone better.
The first battle Ted faces occurs as he stumbles into single fatherhood. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) has left Ted and her son Billy (Justin Henry) after six years of marriage, so desperate to leave that she abandons her suitcase mid-fight. Feeling trapped and lacking a life for herself, she warns of suicide if she lives any longer. Ted dismisses this as a petty argument, convincing himself that she’ll wander back through the door at any minute.
However, she doesn’t. And the film’s premise kicks in, how can a busy marketing executive play the single father? Initially, he is a total disaster. Take, for instance, the morning after his wife disappears, his attempt at cooking French toast for his son: three minutes and a burnt hand later, he has suffered what is the first of many defeats. As he’s struggling to get to grips with his tough new client while doing the morning routine, Billy’s world has fallen apart. Too young to understand, he takes out his frustrations on an already stressed Ted, and they violently clash.
Those opening twenty minutes are an example of creating a character and a situation that provides a brilliant amount of conflict. Good films give their main character a flaw (or in the case of Kramer vs. Kramer, every character has a flaw, many) that they must overcome in order to get what they want. Ted’s flaw is that he’s selfish, living the life he wants as an ad exec working late nights while his reluctant wife plays homemaker with their son. So better for a selfish man than to force a situation on him in which he must learn to be unselfish, because now someone (his son) needs him more than ever. But Billy’s massive dependence upon his father does take its toll.
Eventually, they reach an uneasy existence, which is relayed in a fantastic scene in which they finally master the morning routine without a row. The son walks into the bathroom, and then wakes his father up. Ted then brings the morning paper in, and they eat breakfast. The scene unfolds without a single piece of dialogue, father and son mirroring each other with their paper and comic book. The choreography of the scene works to perfection, providing seamless flow between the two as they do very banal things. They’re starting to get along, and there might be some hope for them yet.
Ted begins to change, instead of telling stories about expensive suits and ad room gossip; he talks emphatically about his son. He grows to be good friends with Joanna’s friend Margaret, who he distrusted before. He begins to change into the father he should be. And when he finally wins the battle against Billy Kramer, Joanna returns, determined to get her son back.
This leads to Ted’s hard fought court battle (Ted vs. Joanna) to prove himself as the better parent, but is he really (Ted vs. Ted). This question moves the film from an interesting and clever premise into a profound statement on the messy world of parenting. These are two people, who both clearly love their child, genuinely want the best for Billy, but their divorce has forced them to choose between the child’s potential best interests and their own happiness.
This is the real lesson that Ted must learn. He has learned to be a father rather than just a provider. Learning not to hide behind his job rather than spend time with his family. Learning that he has to balance his own life with his sons needs, but then his son is taken away. Ultimately, he has to let Billy go, even if he feels he is the better parent. And this is the hardest lesson of all.