A surprisingly funny faux documentary with obvious affection for its beleaguered namesake, I, Tonya does what 25 years ago seemed impossible: It makes the derided and even despised Tonya Harding empathetic and human.
Once one of the top ice skaters in the world — Harding in 1991, at the age of 20, became the first American woman to perform the triple axel — she stumbled into becoming a national punchline after her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his best friend and goon, Shawn Eckhardt, conspired to eliminate her chief skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, from competition by breaking her leg.
Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Steven Rogers. A Neon release playing at Franklin Park. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 120 minutes
Critic’s rating: ★★★★
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney.
The comically botched scheme ultimately failed to stop Kerrigan (she received a Silver Medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics, while Harding finished in eighth place), and resulted in prison time for Gillooly and Eckhardt, with Harding receiving three years’ probation, fines, and a lifetime ban from skating professionally, which effectively ended her career. It was the cruelest of punishments, and moments later Harding tearfully tells the judge she would rather go to prison than not be able to skate, as she begs him to reconsider his decision: “Your honor, I don’t have an education, all I know is skating. That’s all I know. I am no one if I can’t skate. ... It’s like you’re giving me a life sentence if you do that.”
For Harding (a simply brilliant Margot Robbie), the only child of an alcoholic and abusive mother LaVona Golden (a hell-on-wheels monster without remorse as played by Allison Janney), skating was a sanctuary from the chaos and cruelty and the only thing that was dependable in her life. It was also what separated her from almost everyone else, beginning as a pre-teen skating prodigy.
As much as Harding excelled on the ice, she struggled off of it, falling for Gillooly (Sebastian Stan best known as the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes in The Avengers films), the first guy to ask her out, and who later, the film claims, became physically abusive.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl ) and written by Steven Rogers (Hope Floats), I, Tonya is a narrated biography with interjections by the main characters in this unfolding drama as they reflect on the moment — sometimes while in it — and often object to and even deny the film/Harding’s version of the truth. (Janney and Stan as Golden and Gillooly, for example, both tell the faux documentary camera that they were never abusive to Harding.)
It’s a loose but effective and engaging format as a biography, one that elevates the film’s bent as a dark and often sardonic comedy, even juxtaposing the dramatic and serious with a wink and nod, as with Golden's caustic and profane responses to her tirades against her daughter, or the rather witless Eckhardt's (Paul Walter Hauser) self-aggrandizement, including that he was an international spy.
Sometimes you cannot create fiction as unbelievable and strangely funny as the truth. I, Tonya, to its benefit, doesn't try, nor does it have to. The half-baked plans to break Kerrigan's leg, the buffoonish way it goes down with the two additional hired hit men, and the almost comical aftermath, were it not for Kerrigan's injury and pain, bring several laugh-out-loud moments. As a former tabloid TV journalist (Bobby Cannavale) who covered “the incident” tells the documentary crew: “We had no idea that something like this could be done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs.”
While gleefully playing up the humor of all this, I, Tonya also does something else rather well. It quietly and effectively turns Harding into something much more than a punchline, but a person. Much of that is due to Robbie's Oscar-caliber performance.
Reflecting on her life near the end of the film, Harding looks at the camera (us, really) and says, "I thought being famous was going to be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all of my attackers too."
I, Tonya presents Harding as a complicated person rather than the one-dimensional villain we thought we’ve known for so long. Robbie's transformation into the skater and her various incarnations — vulnerable, tough, icy, broken — is mesmerizing and powerful, and one reason why I, Tonya works so well as a comedy-drama and as a character reformation. While Golden is rather one-dimensional, serving as the movie's go-to antagonist and source of humor (watch for the bird on her shoulder), Janney is so good as this chain-smoking force of nature that the lack of depth doesn't matter. Stan and Hauser, in particular, also have comedic high points.
While I, Tonya is redemption for Harding decades after “the incident,” the film is also an important lesson for us in this era of bitter snark and quick judgments: Celebrities, even ice skating villains, are people too.
Contact Kirk Baird at: email@example.com or 419-724-6734.
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