A 'liberation' -- toward home and family; Kramer vs. Kramer Starring Dustin Hoffm Written and directed by Robert Benton.

Ted has great news from the office. In fact, this is one of the best of his life, and he can't wait to tell his wife all about it. But a shock awaits him: Joanna has decided to end their marriage. In the morning, he was an advertising whiz with a fabolous future. In the evening, he's a bachelor father with no idea how to pull the threads of his life together.

That's the start of the intelligent new film called "Kramer vs. Kramer." Like a few other recent movies, it takes a serious look at problems faced in real people in real life -- family conflicts, personality problems, childrearing dilemmas. It's frank and unsensational picture, though its emotions are too highly strung at some key points. And it treats its characters fairly, realizing that men need to be "liberated" toward home and family, just as women need to be "liberated" toward professions and careers.

The plot of "Kramer vs. Kramer" focuses mainly on Ted, played by Dustin Hoffman. He's a nice guy, but he has a definite selfishness problem. Perhaps reasonably, he's always assumed that everyone wants him to be the breadwinner, and that his thriving career is the only contribution his family expects him to make.

It comes as a rude awakening to discover that his wife wants "fulfillment" of her own, and that her quest for selfdiscovery will take place outside their comfy apartment and predictable middle-class routine.

And how about their little boy? Joanna considers herself a failure at motherhood, but Ted is completely at a loss what to do with the lad -- and juggle his job and the housekeeping chores at the same time.

Being a responsible sort, he plunges into the task, and meets with slow success. soon he has realized that his son's "small" problems at home and school are just as important as his own "big" challenges at the office. when choices must be made, he learns to opt for junior's wellbeing rather than his own self-aggrandizement. Another jolt is in store however: Joanna returns from California, her search for "meaning" completed, and demands custody of the child.

The argument of "Kramer vs. Kramer" is somewhat rigged at this point. The movie hasn't bothered much with Joanna for the past hour, while we've seen all the glowing details of Ted's awakening to the responsibilities of parenthood. Still, Joanna (played by Meryl Streep) convincingly expresses her continuing love for the boy she's scarcely seen in 18 months. There is genuine suspense as to which side will win out -- self-made fatherhood, or motherhood for its own sake.

It is the movie's credit that both main characters go through substantial raising of consciousness. after leaving a life she finds rotten, Joanna has the imagination to look for something better, and the humility to acknowledge the need she still feels for her child. Moreover, on a purely practical level, she succeeds in establishing a life and career of her own. as for Ted, his growth toward parenthood is downright inspiring, especially as it seems to grow from deep-seated qualities of fidelity, commitment to others, and fierce family concern -- qualities not always found at the movies these days.

To be sure, these are not perfect people, by along shot. Both can be moody and stupid, and Joanna's self-centered quirks are just as damaging as Ted's, despite their "human potential" trappings. Nonetheless, they are people we can sympathize with a care about, as does their mutual best friend, played by Jane alexander.

"Kramer vs. Kramer" is disappointing when it tries to be too ambitious -- straining to touch all the angles of all the issues. The courtroom scenes are too dense and concentrated, by comparison with the easy flow of the rest of the film.

Though it's a richly detailed movie, there are problems with its fine points, too. Ted's life with his son is a little too smooth; the messiness and temperament are there, all right, but they seem injected for the sake of "completeness." With some exceptions -- a brief hospital scene is painfully believable -- we always know we're watching a carefully calculated drama, not "real life" in all its complicated joy and sadness. a director like John cassavettes would have dragged reality in by the hair and dumped it in everyone's lap. the more precise approach of "Kramer" filmmaker Robert Benton is entirely legitimate, but a touch glossy. Ever so subtly, it keeps us at a distance.

And it comes dangerously close to outright manipulation during the climax, when director Benton starts yanking relentlessly at our heartstrings. Even here , however, "Kramer vs. Kramer" demonstrates its superiority by jerking our tears in a very good cause.m Virtue triumphs, parenthood prevails, and everyone retains the dignity he or she has gained during the film. You wish the actors and the dialogue didn't pour it on quite so freely, but you can't help responding to them.Call it liberation, or consciousness-raising, or what you will -- suddenly it's the most sentimental thing in the world, and everyone hunkers down for a good cry.

Even when its emotions run a bit out of control, "Kramer vs. Kramer" is a strong and positive film. Its performances are first-rate, from Hoffman and streep down to Howard Duff (as a divorce lawyer) and a terrifically talented lad named Justin Henry, who visibly matures in his portrayal of Billy, the contested kid. Delicate cinematography has been provided by Nestor Almendros -- cameraman for such visually alert directors as Franccois Truffaut and Terrence Malick -- and the soundtrack vibrates to lively strains of Purcell and Vivaldi.

In many ways, this is one of the most grownup movies of the year -- the only film in recent memory where the man gets to be the most maternal character in sight. After so many "buddy films" and "disaster movies" and other distortions of male-female relationships, it's mighty refreshing picture to accompany us into the 1980s.

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