It isn’t easy to grasp what I, Tonya wants to be, and perhaps that’s what screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Love the Coopers, Kate & Leopold) was after, creating an elusive tone for a specialized subject.
Nobody was exactly begging for a Tonya Harding bio-pic, but then Rogers didn’t exactly create one. The picture doesn’t make much time for the details of Harding’s life beyond her abusive loved ones and her quest to become a figure skating champion. And the whole Nancy Kerrigan thing, referred to as “The Incident.”
There’s a lot to unpack, but Rogers offers only a tug-of-war between tonalities, trying to remain sincere while playing like a John Waters movie.
Photo courtesy of 30West
I, Tonya tries to remain sincere while playing like a John Waters movie.
Born to be a figure skater, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) craved sporting domination since she was four years old. Raised by her abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya is determined to achieve stardom, with her skills on the ice easily topping the competition, including her special move—the triple axel.
Lacking social skills and a proper education, Tonya remains fixated on her dream, but soon falls under the spell of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who takes a shine to the ill-mannered ice queen.
Finding herself in a violent relationship with Jeff, Tonya tries to keep her eyes on the prize of becoming an Olympic contender, encountering rivals such as Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in her way.
Frustrated by her inability to charm judges and fit in with the crowd, Tonya wrestles with professional disappointment, while Jeff, along with buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), prepare something more drastic to clear Tonya’s way to Olympic glory.
I, Tonya is presented as a documentary of sorts, with the players sitting down in front of the camera to share their memories, pulled from actual interviews that the film labels “wildly contradictory,” making the truth elusive, which gives Rogers creative license to do whatever he wants with the Tonya Harding tale.
She’s a child prodigy growing into a determined young woman—a “proud redneck” who lives in fear of her mother, a ferocious woman who’s quick with a slap and quicker with reminders of all the sacrifices she made to support Tonya’s skating career.
Abuse is the theme of I, Tonya. The titular character is shaped by violence, raised to accept LaVona’s hits and graduating to first love in Jeff, who communicates frustration with his fists, offering Tonya a level of domestic horror she finds almost comforting. There’s a normality to pain that Rogers uses to explain everything about Tonya, from her scruffy image that the skating judges hate (she makes her own costumes and performs to ZZ Top), to her drive to achieve at all costs.
I, Tonya simulates the rocket ride of her life through swirling cinematography and quick editing. There’s undeniable energy here, crafted by director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl), giving the production urgency, punctuated by lively skating scenes that offer unconvincing face-replacement for Robbie. It seems the era of cleverly edited body doubles is over.
After an hour, “The Incident” arrives, erasing whatever true bio-pic intentions were initially there. The Nancy Kerrigan saga was a big deal, an act of cruel violence and a tabloid television frenzy (Bobby Cannavale appears as a sleazy Hard Copy producer), but it’s largely presented as a joke. Rogers revels in the stupidity of the scheme, presenting Shawn as a greasy man-child straight from Napoleon Dynamite.
I, Tonya gets very broad at times, which seems like a natural direction for this story, populated with anger, idiocy, and plenty of ludicrous denial. However, the cartoon extremes tend to erase whatever point Rogers was trying to make, which vacillates between mythology and sympathy, striving to present Tonya as the tragic result of circumstances beyond her control. That would be easier to digest if half the film wasn’t trying to make a running gag out of her life.
There are small triumphs in I, Tonya, including the cinematic craftsmanship, which keeps the picture humming along. Robbie, Stan, and Janney contribute fine work, embracing the bigness of dysfunction.
It’s a colorful film, but it’s difficult to understand what it ultimately wants to be. Actual information about Harding is sparse, as most of the movie is devoted to the Nancy Kerrigan debacle. There’s no journalistic intent, and barely a dramatic one either. Any satire is slowed by random jabs at sincerity, and a reasonable appreciation for the emotional reality is clouded by humor.
I, Tonya is a lot of things, but cohesive isn’t one of them. While it entertains in fits, it’s a viewing experience that’s only skin-deep.