Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Canavale
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Rating: R for Rinkside Potty Mouth and Redneck-Style Violence
Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)
Every story needs a villain, but that’s not always how life works. Even when somebody gets clubbed in the knee leading up to the Olympics, separating the good guys from the bad guys is not always so clear-cut. This is all to say, Tonya Harding has lived a very colorful life, and some pretty illuminating details often get left out in the telling, so she deserves for us to hear her out. It would help, though, if all the parties involved could actually agree on what happened. Nevertheless, I, Tonya, the spirited biopic pieced together by director Craig Gillespie is a record of fantastically entertaining recent tabloid history that is can’t-look-away tawdry but also fair-minded and humanizing.
Harding is one of the all-time greats in American figure skating, but her reputation has forever been marked by the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics. In the popular imagination (and in a gleefully sadistic fantasy scene in the film), Harding was the assailant herself, but it was actually some guy hired by her ex-husband and her bodyguard, and it is questionable how much she ever knew about it in the first place. All of I, Tonya is building up to “The Incident,” but it takes up a relatively small portion of the runtime. After all, Harding’s life was enough of a whirlwind before then for her to already be the wild child in the public eye.
Betting that his big hook is conflicting testimonies and fluffing of image, Gillespie frames the film as a mockumentary consisting of interviews with the principal actors in character, disputing the accounts of the others as they see fit. This is a recipe for raucous storytelling, as every character is oozing with personality to spare. Margot Robbie is dangerously feisty and undeniably winning as she absolutely gives Tonya a chance to redeem herself and just let her voice be heard. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), accompanied with a parrot on her shoulder (credited as “LaVona’s Sixth Husband”), is a piece of work, egging her daughter on with profanity-laced tirades and motivational negging. Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) has mellowed a bit in the present day, but his fiery, mustachioed presence of yore gets a lot of mileage. And an unnamed producer (Bobby Canavale) of the ’90s tabloid news show Hard Copy fills in the blanks with maximum slickness. Not interviewed, but looming large, is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff’s close friend and Tonya’s supposed bodyguard, who earns the biggest laughs of the film, occasionally by just repeating verbatim some of Eckhardt’s most ridiculous claims (like how he is an expert in counterterrorism).
According to Tonya’s telling, there is one big constant: nothing is ever her fault. And certainly she has been a major victim, suffering at the hands of an abusive mother, an abusive husband, and a father who left her. Plus, there is the figure skating establishment that never accepted her, that would never hold up a white trash girl who performed to ZZ Top as their crown jewel. But for all the ways she has been wronged, it is so clear that she needs to shoulder some responsibility herself (as does anyone who wants to have peace). Yes, her ex beat her up, but she also pulled a shotgun on him (though she disputes that part). And sure, the stuffy figure skating establishment probably never gave her a fair chance, but she was intimidating and probably scared a few judges away from reasonability. Ultimately, Tonya implicates everyone watching in creating the monster she has come to be. To which I say: I don’t think you’re a monster! If Margot Robbie has portrayed you accurately, then I like you, Tonya! Chances are I won’t be the only one, as we all get to see the human within this crazy delicious mess.
I, Tonya is Recommended If You Like: The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Tyson, Thelma & Louise
Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Triple Axels