I, Tonya

Young Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON

Seductive in the worst possible way, the January 1994 assault on Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan would lump figure skating in with mud-slinging tractor pulls as a lowbrow sensation, as well as forever cripple American newsgathering techniques with tabloid tendencies.

Following her from childhood to her lifetime ban from competitive skating, the movie I, Tonya seeks neither to exonerate nor convict Tonya Harding, the two-time Olympian and American skating champion, for her involvement in the scandal perpetrated by her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

From the outset, I, Tonya reminds me of Star 80, Bob Fosse’s lurid fantasy tale retelling of what Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten faced when her jealous husband manipulated and derailed her aspirations. Neither of these films offer much other than a puerile puddle of uncomfortable skits to win over its audience, yet both movies are acknowledged “actors showcases.”

Tonya (Margot Robbie) goes from being the target of an overbearing, broken home life to becoming the cabbage patch kid-bride of a local no-ender who engages in adolescent camaraderie with even lower-rung types. The entire story is painstakingly enveloped in slapstick emotional jaunts that come across as Three Stooges eye-pokes, head-slams and knee-slappers (or breakers, as the case may be!)

Personally, I was completely unaware of Tonya Harding other than from the “incident” and her commentaries on World’s Dumbest alongside the likes of Gary Busey and Danny Bonaduce! So she may well be the Playboy centerfold she’s pictured here to be.

But whenever I encounter someone with absolutely no sense of class, no taste in what constitutes “good music,” no aspirations to better themselves, I always wonder: unless she’s being held captive in a walled-in village, isolated from print or peer pressure, how could she have not known any better? The gaudy sequined outfits and indefatigable bad music, from Laura Branigan to Chicago, eventually had to be perceived as a manifestation of inner suckdom!

Her factual story seems to have been embellished with whimsy for the benefit of film audiences who hear the name Tonya Harding and immediately pine for the opportunity to gawk at “that sideshow freak!” So in a real sense, the subversiveness found in I, Tonya is that this movie exemplifies the seamless transition that led American culture from soap opera sensibilities into this nether region of “reality TV” and tabloid journalism. That “incident” and the way it was reported and handled must be accepted as the watershed moment when the gauntlet was thrown down, resulting in the emo-porn of Honey Boo Boo, the Housewives phenomena and TMZ.

Obviously it makes this point by having Bobby Cannavale appear as its narrator, Martin Maddox, from the TV show Hard Copy, who says, “the newsgathering outlets all hated us – until they became us!” Hard Copy was one of those handful of tabloid programs that existed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Bill O’Reilly’s Current Affair and Inside Edition (which still exists today!)

Outside of a few snotty asides to the camera, I cannot fathom why there has been so much made out of Allison Janney’s performance as LaVona Fay Golden, Tonya’s mom. At best, she’s mimicking Brett Butler from Grace Under Fire, a blue-collar sitcom that debuted on ABC in 1993!

But it’s Margot Robbie’s movie all the way, in another fringe-dweller performance as the flawed but misunderstood “bad” girl whose sole saving grace is that constant chirping reminder that “it’s not my fault,” ad nauseam. Robbie has Tonya accentuate artificiality, always deliberately in a huff, completely at odds with the world. Whether put upon by championship judges or the demands of her morning routine, life is out to “get” her! She comes across like a pastiche of Lynn-Holly Johnson in Ice Castles but with that Dixie Peabody glare from Bury Me an Angel!

While in the midst of filming Suicide Squad, Robbie worked out a production deal with Warner Bros., and I, Tonya was her first choice to produce, with Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) to direct. Presented as some kind of “docu-drama” with staged interview segments that attempt to provoke sympathy out of its audience, the decision to filter its seriousness through slapstick leads to some rough edges, specifically with its two male leads – Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser as his overreaching pal Shawn, who concoct the plot against Kerrigan. With them both knee-deep in the hoopla, they remain unspectacular entities throughout.

The trouble with any modern day biopic, whether it’s about Margaret Keane (Big Eyes) or Barry Seal (American Made), is that risk of predictability with a story fresh on the mind. I, Tonya spreads itself beyond “the incident,” and by so doing still manages to catch its audience off guard.