I remember vividly watching the 1994 Olympic figure skating competition, if only because it presented a match the whole world was eager to witness. After overcoming a mysterious assailant who clubbed her in the knee cap, Nancy Kerrigan returned to the ice and skated her heart out. Competing against her was Tonya Harding, who many (like myself) suspected was behind the attack. At one point during Harding’s routine, she skated over to the judges, complained about her skates not being properly administered. The moment, encapsulated by a still of saddened Harding’s face, defined the match and sealed her fate. At the time, it seemed like poetic justice. As Kerrigan emerged the victor and Harding appeared somewhat foolish in her defeat, it felt like good had triumphed over evil. I don’t recall ever watching figure skating with much interest after that year.
The best thing about I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s comedy about Harding’s remarkable rise and fall as a figure skating champion, is that it creates a sympathetic case for Harding, who is an easy target and has taken years of hits as a punch line.
Margot Robbie (in an excellent performance) plays Harding, whose caustic prompting from her cruel, highly profane “monster” mother (played by Allison Janney) finds her in skating class at an absurdly young age. As Harding gathers momentum as a rare athlete who can perform a triple axel, her ongoing relationship with the soft spoken but abusive Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) dooms her career.
Robbie bears an uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to Harding. More importantly, there’s an honesty and tender center to her performance, which is her best yet. The skating scenes sometimes have too much of a CGI sheen but it doesn’t matter if Robbie did all her own stunts; she made me believe she was Harding and I cared deeply about the character.
As vivid as Janney and Stan are, their one-note performances come off as caricatures with little depth. Janney swears and bullies her way through her role but there’s very little to take from it aside from easy laughs and surface level commentary. The same goes for Stan, free from playing his uninteresting Winter Soldier character in the Marvel movies but cutting loose in a role that doesn’t offer much beyond a whiny voice and numerous scenes of domestic abuse.
A big problem of I, Tonya is that it seems to have genuine contempt for its characters. While it makes a case for Harding, it still presents her as “white trash” and goes out of its way to recreate moments that would have provided a season’s worth of fodder for The Jerry Springer Show. There’s also the decision to present the story as a mock-documentary, with characters addressing the camera in interviews and often breaking the fourth wall mid-scene. Sometimes it works (particularly when one character laments how the focus on her is waning) but it mostly feels smug.
Gillespie is clearly in faux-Scorsese mode here, but Harding’s tale is more gaudy than gritty. Once the Kerrigan incident comes into focus (with characters announcing to the audience onscreen, “this is why you came!”), the approach switches to faux-Coen Brothers. Undoubtedly, this portion, portraying the ineptitude of working class criminals, is the most gripping. It also allows character actor Paul Walter Hauser, playing Gillooly’s best friend/evil mastermind Shawn, to steal the movie. Hauser is hilarious and finds absurd depths to his role.
I enjoyed the soundtrack choices (it’s not every day a skating routine is set to ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag”) and the bad 1980s hairdos (Robbie gets the worst of it) but this all feels like redneck pageantry. I, Tonya made me think twice about ever referring to Harding again as “tacky” but that’s exactly how I’d describe this movie.
Two and a Half Stars