Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Mckenna Grace, Bobby Cannavale, Ricky Russert
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
In director Graig Gillespie's condescending I, Tonya, real-life figure skater Tonya Harding is given the slick biopic treatment; portrayed here as a tough-minded victim who overcame a toxic home life en route to her Olympic dreams. Of course, we know that in 1994, Harding was involved in a plot to harm her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, but Gillespie's film (from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, based partly based on his interview with Harding) wants us to root for her as an underdog hero. Casting Harding as a product of her environment--underprivileged, uneducated, abused--and charting her remarkable, albeit brief, rise to fame is a noble endeavor, but I, Tonya wants us to mock low-class caricatures and then feel guilty about it. This kind of double-standard (think the glib finger-waving of The Big Short) means that Margot Robbie's committed performance gets lost amidst queasy comedy and fourth wall breaking. Because domestic abuse, misogyny, and clubbing the leg of a competitor is funny, right?
Making a satire out of the media blitzkrieg that was the Harding/Kerrigan debacle isn't a stretch, since the way consumers played into the white trash hick vs. royal princess narrative is par for the course. However, by structuring his film around contradicting interviews with Harding, her mother Lavona (Allison Janney) and her abusive former husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan) among others, Gillespie tries to complicate something that really isn't that complicated.
Superficially, the film follows a fairly standard biopic arc; starting chronologically with her harsh upbringing in Portland, Ore, her strict skating work ethic, struggles being taken seriously by the Olympic judges, and the eventual plot to attack Kerrigan. The film adopts a non-linear approach; jumping back and forth in time, switching to mockumentary-style interviews, and even having Harding look directly at the screen to implicate the audience. There are multiple period-appropriate needle drops, kinetic editing, bursts of shocking violence, and roving steadicam shots, but treating this story as some kind of Goodfellas-style epic seems odd since it robs the film of the one thing it truly needs to work; empathy.
As a treatise on class, sexism, and celebrity culture, I, Tonya suggests that Harding had to overcome her monstrous mother and bipolar husband in order to prove herself; becoming the first skater ever to land the near impossible triple-axel. However, since the supporting players here are such broad stereotypes--at one point, Janney is wearing a fur coat with a bird on her shoulder-- the essential point of Harding's humanity gets sidelined. During the third act, Gillipsie spends way too much time on the plans of a few would-be criminals attempting to injure Kerrigan, spiraling the film into a wannabe Coen Brothers farce, and though we do see Harding's rival in glimpses (portrayed here by Caitlin Carver), Kerrigan is essentially a plot machination in order to bolster Harding's shaggy underdog story. For I, Tonya to work at all, Kerrigan must be rendered a complete non-person; relegated to the infamous screams of "why?" post-attack. The way the film treats this development is similar to the way it treats issues of domestic violence; as a glib punchline.
There are limits to the kind of self-aware filmmaking Gillipsie adopts as faux-brash attitude here. Instead of trusting us to sympathize with Harding's plight and be able to sift through her more damning traits, I, Tonya pokes fun at the redneck dialogue, bad mullets, and violent episodes and then chastises the audience for enjoying themselves. Laughing at uneducated rural Americans is just as pathetic as a broken shoelace during an Olympic figure skating event, and unfortunately I, Tonya just keeps on laughing, and tripping.