At first glance, Kramer vs. Kramer may seem like any other tug-of-love divorce weepie. Read between the lines, however, and some smart managerial thinking emerges.
Many would argue that the 1970s produced little of any value. And, when you think about it, over-powerful unions, a winter of discontent, stagflation, the Bee Gees, cheesecloth shirts and freebase cocaine hardly constitute a great legacy for posterity. But this is a myopic view. Sure, the decade was an economic and, to a lesser extent, cultural and social disaster area but there were a few sane voices to be heard above the rabble.
Kramer vs. Kramer is one of these, largely because the film works well on so many different levels. It follows Ted Kramer, a successful New York advertising man as he struggles to raise his son after his wife (a still-attractive Meryl Streep) walks out on him. Naturally, Ted is forced to rethink his working patterns and learn what 'parenting' is. The film explores the work/life balance, long before the phrase existed; alludes to acrimonious takeover battles, and finally gives its audience a gooey feel-good ending, with an American-sized dollop of emotional schlock. Managerial viewers prepared to look beyond Dustin's execrable dress sense will not be disappointed.
The importance of forward planning
Ted, having realised that he has been without a lady's company for quite some time, seduces his secretary, Margaret, in a suitably sleazy '70s fashion. After an evening's entertainment, she elects to spend the night in his apartment. Walking nude down the hallway, it comes as something of a surprise to bump into young Ben, to the great embarrassment of all concerned. Pre-seduction, Ted should have brought Margaret 'up to speed' on his domestic arrangements. His failure to do so results in an awkward situation that even the best efforts of the two involved parties could do little to remedy. A lack of forward planning means that Ted will now have to spend several embarrassing hours explaining the niceties of frontal nudity to his son.
Management by objective
As Dustin soon realises, he knows precious little about being a daddy, other than earning money and providing a stern, patriarchal role model. So, instead of trying to build an entire father/son relationship from scratch, he sensibly breaks the process down into more easily managed chunks, each with a clear goal and focus. Thus, for instance, teaching Ben to ride a bike is a notable success. What he sometimes forgets, however, is that when you manage by objective, focus is all. This becomes apparent when his attention momentarily strays while Ben is negotiating his way up and around a climbing frame.
The boy falls and injures himself, then it's tears, crisis management and damage limitation all the way to the hospital.
Playing her trump 'Mummy' card (and with the help of a good blub), Meryl Streep manages to win the acrimonious court battle for the custody of her son. However, as it soon becomes apparent, the victory is a hollow one. The reason?
This particular takeover is against both her son's and his father's wishes - it is a lose-lose situation. Like James Goldsmith's failed bid for Goodyear, Streep realises the strength of feeling against her is simply too strong for this takeover to work - the human factor is just too important. So, in the end she backs off in as dignified a manner as possible, showing us that people do matter and that miserable films can have bittersweet, feel-good endings.