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I, Tonya (2017)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Drama and Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.

Release Date: December 8th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Craig Gillespie Actors: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace, Julianne Nicholson, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver

B

ased on real interviews, and purportedly containing no irony, “I, Tonya” is a surprisingly witty and insightful biopic about one of the most loved – and then hated – of all public figures (whose time in the spotlight coincidentally segued into the ordeal of O.J. Simpson). She’s an unapologetic, blame-dodging, self-proclaimed redneck, handed a pitiable family life from which she miraculously rose to worldwide fame. At one point, she claims, she was the second most known person on the planet, next to Bill Clinton – and her height of recognition was at the age of 23. But her public eminence soon soured into absolute notoriety.

The fifth kid from a fourth marriage, little Tonya Harding (Mckenna Grace, in a spectacular turn) didn’t have an easy childhood, despite her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), frequently complaining about the amount of time and money used to spoil her daughter. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Tonya manages to win her first ice skating competition at the age of four, beating out older competitors with far less talent. Though initially reluctant, trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) witnesses Tonya’s potential, and agrees to help the youth achieve her dreams – dreams that soon reach well beyond the circus-like Ice Capades that her mother uncharitably suggests.

“Skate wet!” cries LaVona after Tonya soils herself when refused a bathroom break. Wickedly portrayed by Janney, LaVona remains selfish, physically and psychologically abusive, foul-mouthed, and opportunistic, despite encouraging (in her own twisted way) her daughter to pursue her solitary interest. The divorce of her parents takes a heavy toll on Tonya’s mental wellbeing, particularly as her father leaves her in the less-than-loving hands of LaVona, though first boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) helps to occupy Tonya’s (now, as a teenager, played by Margot Robbie) time. But his presence soon becomes just as destructive. If her mother was overbearing, cruel, and a constant instigator of humiliation, Jeff only perpetuates Tonya’s social awkwardness, pushing her further into an environment of domestic violence and familial adversity.

Humor is abundant in many of these establishing scenes, though they weave between sequences of emotional poignancy. It’s related early on that Tonya’s behavior is shaped by continual, negative influences, some beyond her control and others too overpowering to willfully remove. The level of dysfunction is funny, yet there’s an undeniable sadness about these interactions that nicely balances the absurdity.

However, the filmmakers aren’t satisfied with mining the laughs inherent in a collection of such colorful people; instead, they begin forcefully infusing comical stylings into the happenings, which oftentimes comes across too strongly. The fourth wall is broken repeatedly; interviews cut into the narrative, sometimes to reiterate or set up coming events, and on rare occasions, solely for a one-line joke (the most notable use of this is with Bobby Cannavale as sleazy “Hard Copy” reporter Martin Maddox, whose participation is immaterial); and references to Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) are made long before her role becomes relevant (something which, for viewers unaware of the incidents, might spoil the fiasco). “I never did this!” exclaims Tonya, to the camera, after a separate scene in which she fires a shotgun at Jeff as he flees from their home. As the film progresses, the editing begins to look more and more like that of “Annie Hall,” which popularly meddled with the timeline and narrative for the sake of hilarity. Unfortunately, most of this is unnecessary; the humor is present even when technical tampering isn’t ramped up.

Of course, the picture eventually devolves into a crime comedy as “the incident” looms: Tonya’s involvement in an assault on Kerrigan, which left the competitor with a broken knee. It’s here that a collection of hopelessly inept crooks engage in a not-so-covert operation that will forever mar Harding’s name. Whether or not her implication was as authentic in real life as it was laid out in the film, her athletic accomplishments – including being the first figure skater to attempt and successfully execute a triple axel in a Nationals competition, and, at one point in time, being widely regarded as the best skater in the world – are nothing next to the scandal. As with the characters in “Fargo” (designed to seem as if based on truth), there’s a feeling that fiction couldn’t possibly be more ludicrous than the facts of ineptitude that aided a crime to so spectacularly fail.

“I worked my whole life for this!” “I, Tonya” does something quite surprising for the lead persona: it generates sympathy. Part of this is from the lack of glamor surrounding Harding’s personal life, even after she participated in the Olympics – which can’t rescue her from being penniless and waiting tables at a scummy diner, though it does present her, eventually, with a second chance (something always of inspirational value on the big screen). And another part is in the corruption of the judges, who value image and reputation more than skills. “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” But perhaps the biggest component is Robbie’s performance: even with a bad attitude, general uncouthness, and repeated mistakes concerning the people with whom she surrounds herself, Harding becomes a realistic, genuine, relatable person, and one who is watchable in every element of her rise and fall. It’s a very human story about a career-defining disaster – riddled with hysterically bungling thugs – that proves that the relationships in Tonya’s life are every bit as emotional and cinematic as the wrongdoing that ensured her infamous disgrace.

– Mike Massie

 



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