I, Tonya gets a thumbs-up from me for basically two reasons: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. There are also some laughs based on other characters’ stupidity, which are pretty easy to get, but Robbie shakes the role of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding like a dog with a bone. It’s a bravura performance, and may get her an Oscar.
Also an Oscar contender is Allison Janney as her mother, the stage mother from hell. There have been a lot of scary mothers in film history, from Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate to Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Janney joins the list of the best/worst.
However, I have reservations about the film, mostly about the haphazard direction by Craig Gillespie. I took a look at his filmography and there’s nothing there to suggest he could handle the complicated script by Steven Rogers (Lars and the Real Girl is his most well-known film). I, Tonya is a black comedy, reminiscent of meta-films like The Big Short and Thank You For Smoking, with characters breaking the fourth wall, and Gillespie can’t manage to make the tone consistent. At times I felt the film wearying.
For those too young, Harding was one of America’s best figure skaters but she didn’t fit the classic mold of the figure skater–the princess on ice. She was unapologetically an athlete–of course all skaters are athletes but they hide it under frills and bangles–and came from the wrong side of the tracks, whereas most skaters come from affluent families. She smoked, swore, and was a rebel, skating to music that wasn’t classical.
She married Jeff Gillooly (who rightly says in the film that for a while he became a verb), who according to Harding beat her regularly (he denies it). But the epicenter of the idiocy surrounding Harding is Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt, a loser who assumes the role of her bodyguard and dreams up the idea to sabotage her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, by having a stooge kneecap her.
That was just about the biggest, most bizarre story of 1994, and the screenplay handles it amusingly and effectively. Despite the nefariousness it is unavoidably funny, as Eckhardt, played by newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, is a classic character–fat, stupid, and delusional (he tells a newswoman that he is an international terrorism consultant, which she points out isn’t true). Harding, according to this film, did not know what was going to happen (she assumed they were going to send death threats to Kerrigan) and the script and Robbie play her as mostly a victim, although one who never takes responsibility for the mistakes she does make.
The relationship between Robbie and Janney is chilling. Harding’s mother had five children, Harding belonging to husband number four. When he leaves a young Harding screams “Don’t leave me!” meaning don’t leave me with her. Janney is cold and cruel, and says her sacrifice has been to make Harding hate her to make her a champion. She’s a psychologist’s dream patient.
Also good are Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Bobby Canavale as a Hard Copy reporter, who rightly points out that Hard Copy was once put down by the hard news organizations who now do exactly what they did.
In the hands of a more competent director I, Tonya could have been a classic rather than an okay movie. One thing Gillespie does that I hate is use pop songs as transitions: scene, pop song introduces next scene, repeat. Also, given that the bulk of the movie takes place in the 1990s, it’s odd that the soundtrack is mostly from the ’70s.
I recommend I, Tonya for the performances and the amazing story (did I mention that after the Kerrigan incident Harding did go to the Olympics, but had to restart her program because her laces broke?).