“I, Tonya” will make you care about Tonya Harding for the first time in a long time. Moreover, “I, Tonya” will make you sympathize with Tonya Harding for the first time. Remembered for her highly contested role in attacking rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (when she’s remembered at all), Harding was one of the greatest villains the ’90s ever produced, up there with O.J. Simpson, the T-1000, and the guy who invented Crystal Pepsi. She was the perfect punchline for a country that always needs someone to laugh at; a country that hinges on the idea of upward mobility but would rather punch down than pull up. Now, thanks to the bitter and bleakly funny black comedy that “Lars and the Real Girl” director Craig Gillespie has made about the most sordid years of her life, Tonya Harding is finally getting a chance to tell her side of the story.
Unfortunately for Tonya, she’s not the only one. Beginning in the mockumentary style of a Christopher Guest movie, “I, Tonya” introduces its motley crew of lower-class characters with a series of interviews that invites us to laugh at them right out of the gate. We meet Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she sits alone in her kitchen, rocking her denim jacket like she was born in it. “Tonya is America,” we hear someone say. There’s no trace of nonsense in her narrow face; this is the kind of woman who stubs out cigarettes with a figure skate. Her catchphrase? “It wasn’t my fault.”
So whose fault was it? Maybe her mother, LaVona’s. Played by an almost unrecognizable Allison Janney, LaVona is part showbiz mom and part dictator. She wants a better life for her daughter, but she’s not great at showing it; she’s also closer to the bird that lives on her shoulder and keeps pecking at her ear than she is with Tonya. And when Tonya gets married to the first guy who tells her she’s pretty (Sebastian Stan as the violent Jeff Gilooly), LaVona’s only response is: “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.” If there were ever a “Real Housewives of Yacolt, Washington,” she’d be its biggest star.
Each of these people gets a chance to state their peace, and they’re joined by an eccentric supporting cast of caricatures that includes Jeff’s supremely dumb best friend (Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt), Tonya’s very presentable skating coach (Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson), and the former “Hard Copy” reporter who helped turn Tanya’s story into a national pile-on (Bobby Cannavale, whose hair alone helps to cement the movie’s comedic tone). It’s a bold move for Steven Rogers to start off by making fun of his subjects, and at times it feels too much like shooting fish in a barrel, but the movie soon begins to complicate and challenge its privileged understanding of these bonafide Americans.
The “Rashomon” approach is underutilized and has a way of gumming up the works once Tonya’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, but Rogers never lets up on the idea that everyone has their own truth. The trouble for Tonya is that most people aren’t interested in learning about it until someone exhumes it in the form of a riotously entertaining movie, slaps some very obvious classic rock cues on the soundtrack in order to make the scenes of abuse more appealing, and lets a sex symbol like Margot Robbie dirty herself down to play the lead.
Robbie, for her part, has never been better. Making the most of her first leading role since “Z for Zachariah,” she does a brilliant job of skating along the thin line that runs between glory and the gutter. Sympathetic but not too sympathetic, her performance is all that allows the film to maintain its tenuous hold over its queasy tragicomedy. The tone might have to be this way in order for people to take it seriously — Harding’s story couldn’t have survived the grim “Foxcatcher” treatment — but Robbie is able to glide from victim to villain and back again and make it look like one fluid stride.
Decked out in blue nail polish and dancing to heavy metal in a sequined leotard she made herself, Tonya is a self-identified redneck in a subjectively judged sport epitomized by the likes of Nancy Kerrigan. She has the talent, but not the breeding. It doesn’t matter that she’s the first woman to ever perform a triple axel during an international event, there’s an artificial ceiling to her success.
“I, Tonya” is far more engaging when its characters aren’t winking at the camera, and Gillespie almost squeezes his heroine out of her own movie instead of more directly reckoning with her secondhand involvement in the incident that has come to define her life, but the film always rediscovers its poise by returning to Harding’s circumstances.
For all of its broad humor — especially when it comes to Eckhardt — this biopic ultimately restores a measure of dignity to its characters, even the awful ones. It understands the conditions that are conducive to abuse (and the ones that allow it to continue), and it doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook for laughing at them. “I thought being famous was gonna be fun,” Tonya sighs, knowing full well that infamy is the only thing her country is willing to offer her.
Fun enough and full of uncommonly dynamic skating sequences (Robbie is a hockey player and noted New York Rangers fan, after all) and larger-than-life performances, “I, Tonya” is more than the trashy pop time machine that audiences might expect. Like its namesake, the film only achieves greatness for a few brief moments, and the best things about it (e.g. Janney’s character) are seldom allowed to expand beyond the stereotypes that make them so easy to understand, but Gillespie’s biopic sticks the landing because it never forgets one of its very first lines: Tonya Harding is America, and she always has been.
“I, Tonya” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.