Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Violence and some Sexual Content/Nudity
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bojana Novakovic, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale & Ricky Russert
After headlines about Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis and before headlines about O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial, tabloids and mainstream news outlets were talking about Tonya Harding and the scandal regarding an attack on her teammate. It was only a matter of time before someone made a film about Tonya Harding (I’m still waiting on that Lorena Bobbitt film), but I don’t think anybody could have anticipated that the Harding biopic would be a dark comedy. However, this odd genre choice fits right in with the stranger-than-fiction material about trashy people doing idiotic things and winding up as a sideshow attraction for all of society to gawk at.
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is a figure skater who sticks out like a sore thumb among her competition. This is partially because she doesn’t fit the figure skater stereotype at all and mostly because of her hot-headed attitude that frequently gives way to profanity-laden outbursts. Though Tonya might be able to pull off amazing stunts on the ice, her home life is another story entirely as her abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) constantly berates her and redneck husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) beats her on a daily basis. When Tonya’s spotlight progressively begins being stolen away by rival teammate Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), Jeff and his idiotic best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) decide to take drastic measures…and an “incident” soon gives way to a media circus.
The best thing about I, TONYA is easily Margot Robbie’s performance. Robbie has played bad people in the past with the villainous Harley Quinn (one of the few things in SUICIDE SQUAD that most people agreed was great) and the crime-dabbling trophy wife in WOLF OF WALL STREET. I, TONYA lets Robbie off the leash though and allows her shine on the screen in a performance that just might go down as the most memorable role of her entire career. Robbie injects honest-to-god humanity into Tonya Harding and gives her a sympathetic side, but also constantly reminds the audience that we shouldn’t necessarily feel completely sorry for her. There’s one interview monologue about being a constant victim that really resonated and seemed to have the entire theater audience questioning why we all rushed out to watch a movie about Tonya Harding in the first place.
TONYA’s supporting cast members aren’t slouching either, because it’s a toss-up as to which side performance is the best. They’re all great across the board. However, Allison Janney plays possibly the most despicable human being in the film as Tonya’s super abusive mother. The unapologetic way in which she verbally puts down and physically abuses her daughter is horrifying. Sebastian Stan shines as scumbag husband/ex-husband Jeff. Paul Walter Hauser elicits big laughs as a total idiot who has a huge role in the headline-making incident. Finally, Julianne Nicholson plays the only good person in the entire film as Tonya’s caring coach (who seems more like a mother figure than Tonya’s actual abusive mother).
I, TONYA’s non-linear narrative helps boost its darkly comedic angle as the film frequently cuts back to interviews with the characters (which in turn were based on real-life interviews with the actual subjects). Lots of laughs come from characters downplaying what actually happened or looking back on horrible events with casual indifference. The only film that I can think of that’s similar in structure to I, TONYA is Gus Van Sant’s underwhelming TO DIE FOR. Whereas that film was a bit of an unfocused mess, I, TONYA uses its unusual structure as a huge strength and cuts down any potential slow spots with its frequent jumps back-and-forth in time.
If someone had no idea who Tonya Harding was and what she’s infamous for, they might easily mistake the first half of I, TONYA as a sports biopic with a nasty edge. The film gives us plenty of interesting development on Tonya Harding’s life, her rise to fame, and her struggles on-and-off the ice. However, the film falters in an area that’s distracting enough to take viewers out of the flow for a few minutes. Every single skating scene tends to have a few effects that don’t look convincing, whether they be CGI spinning or Margot Robbie’s head clearly being placed on a stunt skater’s body. These moments aren’t frequent enough to ruin the experience, but they did look weird…to say the least.
Despite a handful of skating sequences that include iffy effects work, I, TONYA is a great film about a not-so-great person. Margot Robbie’s performance alone makes this movie worth seeking out and the rest of the cast deliver awesome acting as well. The story is compelling and its structure allows for lots of sick laughs, along with the more serious side of this idiotic crime story. If you are at all interested in Tonya Harding or in seeing just how phenomenal actors can be in a story that’s populated by irredeemable idiots, then I, TONYA should be right up your alley!