Directed by Robert Benton
Kramer Vs. Kramer has an incredibly long first act. I love story structure, particularly the 3 act structure, but I often have a hard time spotting the act breaks, sequence structure, etc. of movies unless they are crystal clear. I was reading something recently where a guy said that an act ends when a decision is made or something happens that is irreversible. That makes perfect sense, and I already knew that was what marked the end of act 1, a choice is made and the door is shut behind you aka you have to go down this road.
But for some reason I never thought about that as a marker for the end of act 2. And really, I consider movies to be a four act structure. The second act is usually the longest and it’s split up by the midpoint, when things get more serious or two storylines intersect. The point is, I’m used to the first act lasting anywhere from 25-30 minutes and occasionally longer.
In this film, the conflict is established immediately: Ted Kramer’s (Dustin Hoffman) wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves him within the first few minutes of the film, and he is left to raise his so alone, a difficult task given the role he had assigned himself (and his wife) in the marriage. Ted is a designer at a large firm, and things are going well for him, but his new promotion means he is expected to be available at all times if necessary. The conflict and starting point have been established: Ted struggles as a single father with a stressful job.
He and his son Billy (Justin Henry) bond, even while he sacrifices much to do with his career (eventually getting fired). Act 2 begins when Joanna returns to New York and wants custody of their child. The second act deals with the imminent courtcase and addresses the divide between Ted and Joanna. Whereas act 1 was all about Ted and Billy, in act 2 we see what had happened that caused Joanna to leave and how Ted was hardly the model father and husband before the events of the film began. The second act ends when Joanna is awarded custody.
The third act is much shorter than the previous two as it mostly deals with resolving everything that’s been established previously. First Ted breaks the news to his son and explains why he and Joanna had gone to court. Then we get a scene in which they make breakfast together, mirroring an early scene in which Ted tried and failed to make breakfast for his son. This is a nice, tidy pay off of that earlier scene and demonstrates how far Ted and Billy have come in their relationship. Before it was a messy struggle just to make french toast and now they work together in silent harmony. Finally, Joanna arrives to pick up her son, but she tells Ted that she can’t take their son away from his home. It’s a heartbreaking scene because Joanna is no villain. The film does a great job of explaining where each person is coming from so that part of you wants them both to win. The least they could do is develop some sort of working peace for the sake of their son’s well-being, and by the end of the film that happens.
Joanna, after saying she won’t take their son away from him, asks to see him and Ted suggests she go up by herself. He tells her she looks beautiful, and the elevator doors close on them like it did in the film’s opening minutes when she left him out of the blue.
This is a wonderful film, and I want to figure out why it’s so wonderful. There have been a bunch of films about someone gaining custody of a child, bonding with that child and then having to fight to keep custody of that child. It feels overdone, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s because of this movie that this type of story has been overdone.
Examples I’m thinking of are Big Daddy (1999), the Adam Sandler comedy and the upcoming Chris Evans movie, Gifted, which I have only seen previews for but they keywords for that film would be “child” and “custody battle.”
In Big Daddy, we know everything about Adam Sandler’s character by the time the kid arrives in his life and changes everything. I guess I should say that as far as I can remember, we know everything about Sandler’s character. He’s a man-child, messy, irresponsible, etc. Basically he’s the perfect guy to try and raise a kid for comedy’s sake.
In Kramer Vs. Kramer, though, we don’t know everything about Ted before he’s forced to raise this kid on his own. All we know is that Ted works late at his office, and he’s set to receive a promotion. Being a business man like he is, it’s safe to assume that he’s not the most present father, and we can assume that this has some role to play in his wife leaving both him and their kid. But for Joanna to leave, as she points out, she must have been pushed to her limits.
When she leaves Ted, she blames herself, saying she’s no good for Billy and it’s best for all of them if she leaves. This establishes Ted as a good guy, trying to keep her around. We immediately feel for Ted and though we know he must have had some role in her leaving, we overlook it (probably) because this situation is so horrible and he’s trying his best to keep Joanna around. The film continues to make Ted look good. Despite some early frustrations with his son that don’t come off so well, we see Ted trying his best, and when his son responds with tenderness, we do too.
It’s only until the court case that we get a clear picture of why Joanna left and how low her self-esteem was around Ted. While other custody battle movies are probably all about the single parent’s relationship with his or her child, this film begins and ends with the relationship between Ted and Joanna.
They aren’t going to get back together (I suppose it’s possible but unlikely…), but they know each other better than they ever did when they were together. Both parents recognize their own faults and are willing to acknowledge them and work on them for the sake of their son’s well being.
By the end of the film, Ted has a satisfying job (though he might feel a little underpaid) and Joanna has returned to the workforce while probably having a good role in her son’s life. They’ve each become better people, more happy people and it is good for their son as much as for them.