By: Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Whacked knee or not, I, Tonya is a hit.
With its high-style black comedy blended with raw emotional drama, Margot Robbie’s stellar performance as the much-maligned Tonya Harding, and a fascinating story that’s never made it to the big screen before, I, Tonya proves to be one screwy holiday on ice.
Even before O.J. took to the highways in a white Bronco, it was the Harding/Nancy Kerrigan sports scandal that initiated the 24-hour news cycle. To, um, recap: In 1994, six weeks before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, figure skating superstar Nancy Kerrigan fell victim to an attack by an unknown assailant who smashed her kneecap with a collapsible metal police baton. The authorities quickly discovered that the idiots orchestrating the bumbled attack were Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (his surname turned into a derisive verb, he eventually changed it to Stone), her bloated bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt and two dimwits named Derrick and Shane. Eventually, they all served time behind bars. Though Tonya vehemently swore she knew nothing until after the attack, the authorities weren’t convinced, and she ultimately received a different and more devastating sentence: she was banned from all amateur skating competitions forever.
Nodding to the 1937 classic I, Claudius, in which the emperor’s supposed autobiography walks the line between fact and fantasy, I, Tonya plays with the truth, as filtered through the multiple players and their personal agendas. “There’s no such thing as the truth,” says Tonya in voiceover. “Everyone has their own truth.”
Using that concept as a jumping-off point, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (Kate & Leopold, Stepmom) spin a questionable narrative, interrupting the story’s chronology with current-day mockumentary interviews with Tonya, her mother-from-hell LaVona (Allison Janney), Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), bodyguard Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and her long-suffering skating coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson), plus side commentary from a highly-amused producer from Hard Copy (Bobby Cannavale). Adding to the sly style, the principals will occasionally break the fourth wall, addressing the audience while the action freezes (e.g., Tonya, taking a moment to chat with us during a particularly rough beating from her husband). Horrific, yes; but also insanely funny.
Other than scenes of Tonya as a little girl, Robbie plays the character from her difficult teen years to the current-day, thicker-waisted 44-year old. Make-up, hair and attitude help convey the different ages – but kudos to the actress who believably depicts the rebellious girl, happy bride and bitter competitor whose anger snowballs as external forces pile up against her. (Including her support system, her whitetrash persona that precedes her, and the snobbish judges who can’t see the talent behind her tacky DIY skate costumes.) We get a clear-cut snapshot when, smoking backstage, Tonya reacts to a slight by dropping the butt on the floor, subsequently extinguishing it with a swift guillotine courtesy of her skate blade.
Even more responsible than Gillooly for Tonya’s decided lack of self-esteem is Janney’s LaVona Harding, a chain-smoking, acerbic piece of work who believes the more she beats up on her hapless daughter, the better she’ll perform. The love between them is buried so deep, it’s up to the audience to look for the slightest glimmers. Always excellent, Janney outdoes herself with her cutting assessments delivered in a low alto growl, spewing more profanity than Dr. Dre on a bender. Her straight-to-camera interviews, in which she sports an oxygen tube, cloaked in dead animal fur, accompanied by a pushy parakeet perched on her shoulder are, once again, a mix of horrific and hilarious.
Sebastian Stan is a porn mustachioed villain in the unrepentant mode of a Stanley Whiplash. And Hauser’s take on ludicrous bodyguard Eckhardt, the obese, low-rent dummy who couldn’t guard a poodle, is priceless.
Technical achievements are impressive, with Robbie performing as much of the skating as a non-professional could. As for Harding’s iconic triple axel, it’s noteworthy that currently, only two women in the world can do it. That said, since both are engaged in competition, they had refused. Having no choice, director Gillespie ultimately had to rely on digital enhancement. The fact that Harding alone pulled off this impossible move in 1991 proves her world-class athletic abilities; and yet, given the scandals surrounding her name, it’s a reflection on our society that tabloid trumps achievement each and every time.
Considering Harding’s punishing background of unrelenting physical and emotional abuse, her poverty and her prosaic looks, it’s no wonder that she came out of the gate with her fists figuratively clenched. Additionally, the press did her no favors, casting Kerrigan as the fairytale princess versus Harding as the mean disrupter.
And yet for all of Nancy Kerrigan’s vaunted success and ensuing accolades, one of this year’s most arresting films relegates the pretty girl to a minor player. This time, it’s Tonya’s turn. And taking into account the brilliant performances of Robbie and Janney, the crackling direction and superb script, I, Tonya pulls off its own version of a triple axel. Audiences might want to throw flowers.
Rating on a scale of five blade runners: 5
Here’s the trailer for I, Tonya:
Release date: December 8, 2017
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Cast: Margot Spencer, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale
Running Time: 120 minutes
Tag words: Tonya Harding, 1994 Olympics, figure skating, scandal, knee, domestic abuse, competition, Gillooly, Kerrigan, Gadette