I vividly remember the incident where Nancy Kerrigan was attacked prior to the Olympics in 1994. Living the Pacific Northwest, it was the first major media sensation I can recall from my childhood, followed not long afterward by the O.J. Simpson murder trials, partly because it was somewhat close to home–Tonya Harding, the ice skater who was later convicted of being part of a botched conspiracy to intimate Kerrigan from competing, is from Portland, OR. The story was so bizarre as to become a kind of modern myth, a cautious tale one tells others about how *not* to pursue one’s dreams.
Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya builds upon and mimics Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Adam McKay’s The Big Short as irreverent, satirical, fourth wall-breaking cinematic eviscerations of the American dream. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three films star Margot Robbie, who portrays Tonya Harding here with athletic vigor and darkly comic self-awareness. Gillespie frames this biopic as a sort of mockumentary, a retelling of of Harding’s rise and fall through a series of “interviews” with key figures inter-spliced with the narrative events as they happened. Or rather, as they might have happened. I, Tonya addresses its questions of truth, history, celebrity, and mythology with the subtlety of blunt force trauma.
“It wasn’t my fault,” repeatedly gripes Tonya. And, given her life story, we may be inclined to agree. Surrounded by idiots and monsters, ranging from her inept and violent husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) to her horrifically abusive mother LaVona Golden (Alison Janney, in a vicious scenery-chewing role) to her doofus bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), the circumstances do feel stacked against her. Raised as a self-proclaimed redneck in poverty, Harding’s natural ice skating talents outweigh her familial origins and economic status up to a point. Robbie embodies the physical prowess of Harding with a delicate ferocity–even as we can discern that it is not Robbie herself performing these remarkably skating feats due to the slightly noticeable CGI moments, she’s nonetheless impressive both on and off the ice. Yet throughout the film, Robbie portrays Harding as defensive and whiny about how unfair her situation is, how everyone is against her and she’s alone to rise above her situations. Only, she doesn’t. This is less of a rise-and-fall tale, and more of a sink-lower-and-lower story. Even when things seem to be going her way–like when she becomes the first woman to perform a triple axel in competition–the success is always diluted by financial worries, deep isolation, and near-constant abuse Harding sustains from Jeff and LaVona. This is all somewhat entertaining, when it’s not exhausting. Stan is impressive in his supporting role, but it’s Hauser as the inept overweight “bodyguard” still living with his parents which is the most humorous even as he elicits pity.
That Gillespie manages to make a dark comedy out of such a despairing premise is noteworthy, much of which rests on the script from Steven Rogers and the excellent performances from the entire cast. Yet the film, like The Big Short, revels too much in its own smugness and snark. As it points the finger at American values, it also hopes those very values and practices will bring box-office success and awards nominations. There’s a scene late in I, Tonya where Robbie looks directly into the camera and says, “I thought being famous was gonna be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just the punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.” It’s a powerful, frisson-inducing moment in an otherwise bleakly funny look at a cast of misfits embodying the late-80s and early-90s American ethos (and hairstyles!). Robbie gives these lines with a quiet fury and resolve, one which should make us step back and contemplate our own contributions to celebrity culture, media sensationalization, and public demonizing. It’s a tragedy the film doesn’t allow more space to consider these questions. Cheeky and outrageous, I, Tonya might be the satire America deserves, but in a year where we’re already overwhelmed by political and sex scandals and tragic news stories of violence, this might not be one we need.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580036/