- Movie Rating -

I, Tonya (2017)

| December 9, 2017

I don’t really give much thought to Tonya Harding.  To be honest, there really isn’t much to think about.  I know the bare bones of her 25 year-old scandal which I hardly paid attention to even then.  I know she was tossed out of the United States Figure Skating Association over an assault on Nancy Kerrigan perpetrated by her then-husband Jeff Gilloolyjust before the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit which destroyed her career.

From that, her name has become a punchline, a gallon of material that kept David Letterman in monologues and Top 10 Lists (he turned the name Gillooly into an earworm).  Harding’s subsequent attempts to stay in the spotlight have ranged from curious to pathetic.  She’s made a living as a boxer and occasionally she pops up on TV guest spots, the most bottom-of-the-barrel being a show lovingly titled “X-Rated: The Sex Tapes That Shocked the World.”  Other than that, she’s not really a blip on anyone’s mental radar.

That may change now that I’ve seen Craig Gillespie’s unflinching bio-pic I, Tonya, which tells Tonya’s story in a way that will force me to not only think about Harding, but also to regard her with a great deal of sympathy.  But don’t let that scare you.  This is not a half-wit Lifetime Movie, but a strikingly bizarre mixture of biography and extreme black comedy aimed at a scandal that was really a comedy of errors to begin with.  But neither Gillespie nor the screenwriter Steven Rogers are willing to mock Harding.  They neither turn her into a tabloid monster nor a wounded saint.  They want to put her heart out front so that we feel for her even as she inevitably becomes surrounded by the idiots who eventually put the gears in motion that destroy the career that she has worked to build.

Margot Robbie occupies the role of Tonya in what may be her best performance ever.  She plays Tonya a as an athlete facing an uphill battle against not only the competition but against her own trailer trash background.  She is demanded to be bolder, stronger, faster, but then is then told that she must be a lady at the same time – something that is completely absent in her upbringing.  She is doomed by her own environment.  It is a small element to the film, but while Tonya struggles to look the part of the ice skating fantasy that would be more suitable to the judges, the far-more polished Nancy Kerrigan looks the part but isn’t quite as good.

Robbie is the perfect choice for this role.  In every performance, she has shown an unmistakable inner live wire, a swagger that signals that she wants to be more than just a pretty face.  It was there in The Wolf of Wall Street where she played DiCaprio’s vengeful ex-wife.  It was there in Focus, despite a role that demanded that she shut up and be pretty.  It was there in DC’s should-have-been-better Suicide Squad where she was perfect as Harley Quinn.  It was even there in her small but amusing bit in The Big Short which had her playing herself sitting in a bubble bath explaining subprime loans to the audience.

But here, she displays a person trying to break away from the toxic individuals in her immediate circle, and we get the information that they’ve been there since the beginning.  We meet Tonya as a child growing up under the thumb of her mother Lavone Golden (Allison Janney), a hateful monster who strong-arms her daughter to succeed and then makes outrageous excuses about forfeiting love in favor of pushing her to success.  From her mother, all the way up to her husband Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan), violence is a constant in Tonya’s life.  There is always a sadness about Tonya bred from low self-esteem bored into her by a nihilistic mother and a husband who is an imbecile.

Her mother, by the way, is played in a brilliant performance by Allison Janney, as a broad-lined cynic who hates everyone and everything and plays cruel head games with Tonya and then leans on the excuse that it is pushing her to succeed.  This is a role that another actress might have turned into a one-note, scenery-chewing reptile, but Janney has a way of infusing LaVone’s cruelty with a sense of cold-blooded self-satisfaction bred from some inner place in which she herself failed in life.  The moment that Tonya achieves her triple-axel, there’s a shot of Janney in the stands that is more monstrous than almost any villain you can name.  Trapped between a tyrannical mother, and a leach of an ex-husband, there is no place for Tonya to be herself.  They are weights around her ankle and the sad truth is that they always will be.

The best think about I, Tonya is the filmmaking style.  He uses fake interviews with Tonya, Jeff, LaVone and a rather amused Hard Copy reporter (Bobby Cannavale) to keep us oriented and to accent how ridiculous the whole mess turns out to be.  It is a bold style that could have gone wrong, but Gillespie is able to balance the ridiculousness of the scandal with Tonya’s real-time emotional struggle.  He pulls a brilliant move over the closing credits by showing us interviews with the real individuals in Tonya’s inner circle to show that he wasn’t painting them as parody – they really are that stupid!

If there is a weakness in the film, it comes in the second act when Gillespie enters the story into the long details of what Tonya calls “The incident.”  The messy details of Kerrigan’s assault are laid out as a comedy of errors but it feels more perfunctory than the earlier scenes which felt more organic.  Here screenwriter Rogers allows the clowns to run the circus as we see Jeff and his dimwitted friends run through the crime and then pathetically attempt to work their way out when the FBI comes calling.  It was inevitable that he would have to go there, but I wish that he had matched it with the creativity of the first act.

Still, that’s a minor hiccup.  This is a fascinating portrait of a talented girl caught up in a ridiculous scandal that ruined her promising career before it really got started.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Drama