Fresh off of an accomplishment at his work, Ted Kramer returns to his New York apartment to find that his wife has packed her things and is planning to leave him. Seemingly unaware of her unhappiness, Ted is confused with Joanna and pleads for her to stay. In her haste, she chooses not to explain herself but gives Ted instructions on taking care of the errands and caring for their young son. The next morning, Ted struggles to explain what happened to Joanna to little Billy and tries to simply support their regular routine. As he initially struggles to keep it together balancing work and caring for his son, Ted eventually gets into a groove, just in time for Joanna to return and demand that Ted needs to give him back. Flustered by her return and demands, the former couple choose to go to court and fight for the custody of Billy.
Starring: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Jame Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard)
This film served as an opportunity for some early success for both Meryl Streep’s and Dustin Hoffman’s long-running careers as a truly dramatic presentation. Streep initially plays the role of the distraught and broken housewife. Though she never makes it completely clear as to her attempts to keep the family connected, her return and battle during the court proceedings serves as an excellent representation of the intensity of her character. For Hoffman, the role allows him to take a character who is wrapped up in his work and force him to open up to an entirely different aspect of life and family. His anger issues definitely create a rift between him and his son, but eventually he is able to develop the the rapport necessary to gain Billy’s trust. Though a little difficult to discern at the beginning, Jane Alexander’s role as Margaret Phelps highlights the necessary friendship needed to make it through such a rough experience. Although she does not seem to need a more intimate relationship with Ted, Alexander is able to project a lighter side their friendship.
In this example of the challenges of divorce and custody, Robert Benton takes the tradition roles of men and women and turns them on their heads. When Joanna leaves Ted to take care of their son, he struggles immensely with the challenge. Never having had to think about what goes into taking care of a child, he continually tries to psych himself out to pretend he has the confidence to be successful. When their first breakfast goes poorly and all Billy can do is ask about his mom, Ted believes he is in trouble. It does not help when Billy is unable to move beyond the loss of his mother. Ted is eventually able to get through to Billy in a way that has his son craving Ted’s attention. Even after an incident at the playground, it is the love and support Ted is able to show him that continues to build on that foundation. Hoffman is able to show that even a detached father can make a difference if given the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
When Joanna returns, she shakes up Ted’s world. Just when he felt that he was running like a well-oiled machine, Joanna returns to demand and sue for the custody of her son. Ted’s lawyer does not give a lot of confidence regarding his chances of winning the trial but is still able to press on for a rather hefty fee. Ted tries to protect Billy from the trial, but a request from Joanna to see her son drops some of the barriers. During the trial, the issue of character becomes the major focus. For Joanna, her abandonment of Billy for 15 months serves as the most significant barrier to her success. For Ted, he is already at a disadvantage because the mother maintains more right to a child, but the loss of his higher-paying job leaves him making less than Joanna and seemingly less able to support Billy at as high a level. With the lawyers on the attack, both Ted and Joanna experience the harshness of the legal setting and end up understanding each other a little more as they witness the stress take over during each of their times on the stand.
While the speed of the film is a little inconsistent, the story highlights a different perspective on a father learning how to care for and show his dedication for his son.
Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5