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To suggest that Kramer vs. Kramer has everything going for it but doesn’t quite work may sound perverse. After all, this drama about a broken marriage and child custody battle won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and was a popular success despite its downer subject. What doesn’t work?

Writer-director Robert Benton and his collaborators clearly want to make an informed dramatization of emotional turmoil. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a successful ad exec whose wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) feels inadequate in all things, including her responsibilities as a mother. When she leaves in desperation, their son Billy (Justin Henry) remains with Ted. After a period of fraught adjustment, father and son grow closer than ever before. Then Joanna reappears seeking Billy’s custody.

This conflict is grounded in the intricacies of contemporary life, from making French toast in the morning to picking up kids after school. Amidst the New York hustle and bustle, cinematographer Nestor Almendros bathes designer Paul Sylbert’s matter-of-fact settings in his characteristically soft light. Editor Jerry Greenberg gives everything an insistent push, rushing here, relaxing there. Benton gives Hoffman, Streep and Jane Alexander as their neighbor Margaret quiet support, and they respond with an emotional ballet of glances, hesitations and occasional, frustrated outbursts.

It is all of a trimly choreographed piece. So why, for all the careful craftsmanship does it feel a little academic? It’s not that too much care has gone into it, just the wrong kind, for this is not just domestic melodrama. It is upwardly mobile domestic melodrama, with all the self-consciousness that description suggests. Each tastefully etched detail seems to expect applause for its sophistication. From the opening shot of Streep looking at the sleeping Billy, light glinting off her wedding ring, to the Vivaldi on the soundtrack, to the characters’ understated confusions, it is all a little too fashionably smart to work as a simple tearjerker.

That isn’t a compliment, because for all the smarts, there is also a fair degree of dishonesty. The emotional growth between Ted and Billy is believable as far as it goes, for example, but the very success in demonstrating their difficulties raises questions about what we are not seeing. Sequences like those when Ted loses his job and manages to browbeat his way into a new one are sheer fantasy land. As for the howler of a “happy” ending, the less said the better.

Not that these shortcomings make Kramer vs. Kramer a “bad” film. They do suggest, however, that beneath the sensitive surfaces beats a heart of shrewd calculation, 1970s style, in which psychotherapeutically informed manipulation serves the familiar goal of popular acceptance of problems easily solved by convention and contrivance. The result is neither as affective as simple formula nor as potentially disturbing as complex art. Benton and company are not cynically exploiting the material; they are working to the best of their considerable abilities. The results are not insincere or incompetent, just shallow.