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Feb 23 2012

Distant Relatives: Kramer vs Kramer & The Descendants

Robert here w/Distant Relatives,exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

The final Oscar campaign push forThe Descendantspainted it in the grand tradition of much Oscar-loved domestic dramas likeOrdinary PeopleorKramer vs.Kramer.Okay,good enough for me.Let's compare.Particularly,for me,I like theKramer vs.Kramercontrast,since both films follow the "absentee mom and fallable but ultimately well-meaning dad"narrative that seemed to really build steam in pop culture afterKramer vs.Kramer hit it big.

Consider it a kind-of anti-screwball comedy genre,not necessarily a response to men exiting the workforce,but to taking on roles that a quickly changing society had traditionally considered to be for women.At their best,such films could suggest that any gender-based definitions and divisions of spousal and parenting duties were ridiculous,cultural and social construct that need no longer apply.At their worst they featured the zany consequences of macho men taking on tasks that required them to be caring and nurturing...you know like women's work (I can't imagine a demographic or orientaton of people that films like this wouldn't offend in some way).

BothKramer vs KramerandThe Descendantsfall clearly into the better half of this equation.But there are other traps of which they skirt the edges.Consider,that the majority of films,then and now are made by men and for men...  [Continue]

Movies about dads forced to do double duty can have a hint of "guy power"to them,painting their male protagonists as flawed,usually stereotypically detached workaholics purely for the sake of redeeming them later.

Moms don't come of particularly well,and in the two movies we're looking at here take your pick between unfaithful,comatose,self-centered,and saved only by Meryl Streep's nuanced performance.Kids are usually shuffled into the category of "perplexing in a way that only a mom could really understand."And rounding off the cast is usually an outsider mother who serves as a mirror image of our protagonist dad (Jane Alexander and Judy Greer respectively) whose alliance to or decency toward the guy serves only to buoy him up more.

Am I being too hard on our films this week?

BothKramer vs KramerandThe Descendantslive and die by their performances which present images of overworked parenthood and guess-as-you-go adulthood that are easy to relate to.Supporting characters eschew caricature and the subtleties and nuances of relationships are certainly recognized if not fully developed.

And then there'sOrdinary People.It may seem initially out of place in this crowd but it fits right in.All three films follow the same solid structure,beginning with a rupture in the family dynamic and working their way through a period of uncertainty,ultimately stopping at the resolution of an eventual and inevitable separation.WhereOrdinary Peoplediffers is that it gives equal,if not extra time to the family's teenage child.It makes a nice bridge betweenKramer vs KramerandThe Descendants,the latter of which concerns itself with the effects of familial conflict on both a young and teenaged child.Timothy Hutton's Conrad and Shailene Woodley's Alex may not share the exact same pathos,but they're both people on the verge of adulthood dealing with the pain of a very fallable mother.And thus,in case you didn't notice,the last cog falls into place forOrdinary People,the bad mom.

If these films feel a little overly-constructed and concerned with upper-middle-class trobules,consider most of the classic melodramas of Hollywood's golden age,or the celebrated films of Ingmar Bergman.These films focused on daily family life attract an audience that wants to know they're not alone,that the inevitable drama of every day life can and will spiral out of control for everyone.On the other side of the hill there's always relief to be had...and usually a few Oscars.亚博主页

Previous Distant Relatives
Sunset Blvd & The Artist
Rocky & Moneyball
Walkabout & Meek's Cutoff
Blade Runner & Moon
2001: A Space Odyssey & The Tree of Life

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Reader Comments (11)

This is a great deconstruction,Robert,with which I almost wholeheartedly agree.However,while I enjoyed "Kramer vs.Kramer"and "Ordinary People,"I found "The Descendants"a definite case of "first-world problems"that didn't connect with me in the manner that it's predecessors did.Maybe I can attribute that to its tropical setting,or maybe it's because the formula has been used so much more effectively in the past.

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Thanks for the great post -- it's nice when I actually know both movies!In the meantime,I just watched Hud for the first time,and I couldn't help but think of the parallels with Rachel Getting Married.Potential next post?

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

Kramer vs.Kramer and Ordinary People are one of the few Best Picture winners I really care about - I actually rewatched both a month or so ago.It does not compute at all that Donald Sutherland didn't get nominated even for that.

I like the first and last shots of The Descendants,but almost everything in between feels more or less fake.

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Comparing The Descendants to Kramer vs Kramer is like comparing a PB&J sandwich to a gourmet dinner.Descendants is watchable only because it's Payne-lite and the fact that all the actors except Clooney are perfectly cast.A film like this lives or dies by the lead - in this case Clooney - and with the pitiful non-performance performance he's dead weight.It's such a forgettable film.As my friend said Clooney can't convincingly play a father,he can't even convincingly play a bad father.Kramer vs Kramer on the other hand is rich in every aspect.A film you can watch over and over.I am the last person to praise Streep but even I give her a thumbs up for playing a mother so easy to loathe.

Personally I would compare Ordinary People to Rabbit Hole,more than the other two films mentioned.Both families are better off at the end.Kidman and Eckhart are better together and Sutherland and Moore are better apart.

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterCity_Of_Lights

Interesting-- I've been thinking that one of this year's films is reminiscent of Kramer vs.Kramer,but it was A Separation,not Kramer vs Kramer for the courtroom connections.In both cases,I practically wanted to testify in the main character's defense.

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Is that why I hate "The Descendants"so much?Run off dislike of "Kramer vs Kramer"?

February 23,2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn -- hmmm.i doubt it.I hate the Descendants too but I love Kramer vs.Kramer.

February 23,2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I really like this distant relatives feature,and I enjoyed your analysis here.I grew up in the 70's and Kramer vs.Kramer really fit the zeitgeist of the time,with divorce becoming increasingly common -- suddenly it seemed like every family we knew was splitting up -- and gender roles in a wild state of flux.Despite strong performances,I don't think the movie has the same power today.

February 24,2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteph

* "not The Descendants"

February 24,2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Funny short story about the Oscars: R.I.P.亚博主页Oscar – A Hollywood Satire by Andie Heid
(includes: The Oscar Games,Movie Star Wars,Catwoman Rises,Battle of the Snow Whites,The Twilight Saga continues…)

February 24,2012 | Unregistered Commenterchriss

Interesting piece.I guess where they fail to be similar for me,beyond the very astute comparisons brought up here,is taking into account how toothlessThe Descendantsis,both compared toKramer vs.Kramerand in general.WatchingKramer vs.Kramerfor the first time years ago,I remember being surprised by how it really avoids sentimentality,maybe not at every turn.That it manages to make us care about Dustin Hoffman's character without totally canonizing him or totally demonizing Meryl Streep's character was really fascinating to me.There's some serious shading going on here,which is amazing when you take into account that it's a movie from the 1970s about a woman who leaves her young son.Kind of ripe for any number of ideologies to seep into the filmmaking.

The Descendants...I just won't even go there in detail.I just hate it so much and furthermore it feels like a movie that I wouldn't even be thinking about if not for its prominence this awards season.I'll just say that it doesn't manage to avoid those two aforementioned elements (uplifting the husband beyond reproach/demonizing the wife beyond redemption) in the way thatKramer vs.Kramermanages.

February 24,2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Pretentious Know It All
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