on 24 April 2012
Tony Parsons is a clever man. I don't mean clever in any kind of meaningful way, just in the sort of way that allows you to take a famous film (or the book on which this was based), in this case 1979's Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer, utterly plagiarise the plot, and then make millions off it, without anyone seemingly noticing. Consider the plot of blockbuster "Man and Boy", by everyone's favourite Daily Mail opinion-spouter: "wife leaves family home, abandoning son so she can find herself, leaving father to juggle maintaining a successful career with the newfound duties of bringing up a young son. Just when they've recovered from a rocky start, and are beginning to be a real family unit, the EVIL mother returns to claim what is rightfully hers, and a legal battle ensues."
There are MANY more similarities, but to list them here would be to list the entire plot of both the film and the book, and that isn't really the purpose of this review. True, Tony Parsons' book-writing career has been following the law of diminishing returns ever since, but maybe he's just not keeping up with the right trend. He's been rewriting his own book again, thus diluting the original even further. He should go back to the source and maybe attempt to plagiarise another in the series of what originally made him wealthy. The question is, which series? Who from "Kramer vs Kramer" should he follow? Avery Corman, who wrote the original book, followed it up with "the bust out king", the director Robert Benton went on to direct "still of the night" (1982), and Dustin Hoffman went off to star in Tootsie (1982). The idea of Tony Parsons in drag might not be to everyone's taste, but maybe it's what he needs to write about to score another "hit".
Anyway, the film itself does not seem to have dated that well. Some films are very much of their time, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, it does make it harder to enjoy when coming to it new. I find it hard to fathom the success it enjoyed, as it appears now the sort of Sunday afternoon film you catch bits of while flicking aimlessly around, as opposed to being a must-see film that had people talking about. I gather it did wonders for getting the laws re-examined regarding automatically favouring the mother in custody battles, although that does seem to defy the evidence of my own eyes, seeing as that is how they are still nearly always resolved.
The film's theme, of a young kid and a wayward adult forming a bond that improves both of them, is not uncommon, and with good reason - it's always, if done even reasonably, going to pull on the emotions of the viewer, and there's definitely occasions when it works here, since the personnel involved and awards gained show that it is more than reasonably done. However, I find the acting lets it down. I have never been a massive fan of either Hoffman or streep, despite the occasional performance indicating otherwise. Both are just too "actorly". I never lose myself in their performance - they are never totally their character like I get with, to pluck a random example out of the air, Paul Newman. And while young Justin Henry as Billy Kramer has his moments (his crying in a hospital scene is particularly convincing), he has his real clunking moments too, such as throwing a tantrum on the bed. It always seems unfair to expect the same standards from child actors as adult actors. I mean he was 8 when he did this film. Eight, for Christ's sake! My only real achievement by that age was not wetting the bed. However, the problem remains that bad acting draws the viewer out of a film, and it doesn't matter from that standpoint who is doing the acting. The mind can make allowances for someone's age - the heart can't. Or is that the other way around? Anyway, the point, such as it is, stands.
While there are some scenes that work, there are several that don't work at all, even on a logical basis. when he reads a letter to Billy, from Billy's mother, without reading it himself first, and it turns out to be really quite a nasty letter, I was just thinking ALL the way though the reading of it, why didn't he just scan it first, outside the room? When Hoffman is coming under increasing pressure from his boss about his work, and he knows that the boss is very unimpressed by, and worried about, Hoffman's domestic situation, the idea of Hoffman at some business lunch waffling on to his clearly uninterested boss about some amusing incident involving Billy, reminiscent of parents boring neighbours with detailed descriptions of their baby's first poo, is just farcical. I'm ok with the idea of Hoffman getting involved with his son and reevaluating his priorities, but this indicates a complete leave of his senses. I also don't get a courtroom scene where streep's lawyer is attempting to prove that Hoffman is an unsuitable parent because he interrupted his work several times to be with his son when he was needed, and why Hoffman got so defensive about it. Very strange. There are other questions. He's on a bucketload of cash (I believe his wage works out as around $100,000 at today's prices), and yet when he starts and is struggling to juggle both, with his mind far more clearly on work than parenthood, he doesn't even think about getting some paid help to share his workload. Why is he in such a cheap looking apartment when he's on such a lot of cash?
My sympathy for all (except the boy) takes a hit when absolutely nobody seems to even ask him what he wants while the court battle looms. Indeed that is the biggest absence of Billy in the film, as he's shuffled into the background and the adults talking takes over. While that may well be an intention of the film, to show the bureaucracy taking over, the inhuman lawyers monopolising proceedings while the needs of the (literally) little people are ignored, we don't even see Hoffman bothering to talk to the kid in the evenings about it. The kid is literally forgotten about by all, and it becomes difficult to have too much sympathy for anyone except Billy, who is a bit too whiny to have much sympathy for in the first place.
All in all, this is a reasonable enough film to watch, and fans of a decent tearjerker will find some fare here. As a guy in Hoffman's situation, with a young son myself that I only get to see some of the week, I should be its target audience, and should have been crying buckets. I fully expected that to be the case. That it wasn't is some indication that the film has lost some of what power it must have undoubtedly once had. There's nothing truly awful about it, but it's sun has faded over time.