I, Tonya nails the technicals but flubs some of the artistry

Anyone looking for a shocking exposé of the Tonya Harding story isn’t going to find one in I, Tonya. As its name suggests, the film is Tonya’s own telling (implicitly if not literally)—an outright exoneration of her alleged crimes; an excuse for her personal flaws; and, generously, a rationale for why she and her ex-husband literally look like movie star superheroes in the film. This is an unreliable narrator’s telling of the crime. In the end, she swears it’s “the (fuckin’) truth,” and whether or not that’s true, it’s a conveniently simplified telling built for a movie, not a retrial. Still, like the woman at its center, I, Tonya is better than most its peers if still hard to like in some ways.

Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding, who anyone around in the mid-’90s will remember as a figure (skater) who, the year before O.J., became an infamous celebrity criminal of national news. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (a phony-mustached Sebastian Stan), and her so-called bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, best known as the chubby Juggalo of It’s Always Sunny, here doing a wonderful job as a delusional neckbeard-by-way-of-mustache), were charged with hiring some other guys to club the leg of Harding’s main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan. While Harding was—at least in the public eye—always very much involved in the crime, I, Tonya attempts to paint another picture. What if Harding was a victim of not just an abusive ex-husband but of circumstance, made a criminal thanks to the bumbling idiocy of the idiots around her? Also, what if her mother (Allison Janney) was a drunken asshole of a one-dimensional villain who screwed her up beyond repair? Well, one need not imagine, because that’s very explicitly what’s shown.

Perhaps fittingly for a film focused on figure skating, I, Tonya is a technical feat that’s also distractingly glittering in over-the-top theatricality. Director Craig Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis pull off some phenomenal camerawork; outside a couple shots where it’s too apparent that Robbie’s head has been pasted on an actual athlete’s body, the skating sequences are dazzling, dizzying spectacles like nothing you get on NBC’s useless Olympics coverage. But nearly as often, the movie feels like it was made by a film student who just saw Goodfellas in their Intro to Cinema class. It’s so showy with dramatic push-ins—and accompanying voice-over, of course—it painfully smacks you in the knee with its Scorsese inspiration. For every naturalistically-lit scene that really pulls you into the Harding trailer park, there’s a meta wink or cheap mockumentary interview laugh to knock you back out.

Likewise, the lead performances are wonderfully captivating, unfailingly committed, but also ridiculously hammy. There’s always more than a bit of staginess to the acting, whether it’s part of a melodramatic domestic dispute (of which there are too many to even recall) or a Parks and Recreation-style gag delivered straight to the lens. All of the characters would feel just as at home in an SNL sketch as in a biopic involving a crime pursued by the FBI. Everyone tries so hard to oversell everything that even when it works—which it often does—it feels like no one involved trusts the script. Given that writer Steven Rogers’ prior work includes rotten duds like Love the Coopers, P.S. I Love You, and Kate & Leopold, it’s hard to blame them—but it shows.

Yet most damning of all is that, for a clearly one-sided story, I, Tonya isn’t very upfront about it. Beyond a single shot calling out the rare moment Harding apparently doesn’t agree happened, the film never takes advantage of its tunnel vision. It’s sometimes funny but not a satire; it’s a melodramatic tale of a famed athlete but not quite a biopic, either; and that it gives a follow-up epilogue without mentioning Harding’s accusation of a gang rape attempt by Gillooly seems, at best, negligent at telling the skater’s side of things. Gillespie and his talented actors made something that’s good but only occasionally great, full of potential but often unfulfilled, worthy of some awards glory but never quite in grasp of the biggest trophies. In essence, I, Tonya actually is a pretty accurate representation of Tonya Harding. And that’s the more convincing tragedy than the story within.

Grade: B-

I, Tonya
Director: Craig Gillespie
Studio: Neon
Runtime: 121 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace

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