Movie Review: I, Tonya

Figure skating’s most notorious incident gets a semi-comic treatment

I, Tonya (Ja, Tonya)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
With Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Anyone who was near a TV in 1994 knows the name Tonya Harding. When daily tabloid news shows became the rage, Tonya was one of the first stars, although against her will, her fame even predates that of OJ Simpson.

I, Tonya tracks the events in her life and the world of competitive figure skating up to and after what the films calls “the incident.” It to this day is the only thing that many people know about the sport.

The tone of I, Tonya is a bit inconsistent, going for laughs one minute and voyeuristically showing child and domestic abuse the next. The opening credits refer to the event as “bonkers,” but much of what happens is no laughing matter.

At times people talk directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, as they re-enact events. Tonya (played by Margot Robbie) at one point does something while looking right at the camera and denying it ever happened (this in not “the incident”). It is effective, but comes off as contrived because for most of the film people do not break the fourth wall this way.

The film claims to be based on videotapes and other documentary evidence, and often that is the case.

Some re-created interview scenes, thrown in among the dramatic parts, look exactly like the originals but with the actors instead.

Tonya’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) is seen in restaged interview scenes in a bowl haircut, sitting with a bird on her shoulder. A little web surfing, and you can find the original clip.

Almost all of the cast looks and behaves exactly like their real life counterparts, except Tonya Harding herself.

Margot Robbie is taller, and she doesn’t have the attitude of constantly looking up like the real Tonya shows in almost every video clip. Robbie’s version of Tonya comes off as tough and self-assured, despite a rough life. The real Tonya always had a startled and vulnerable look.

The real Tonya was known for her shopping-mall hairdo and exaggerated makeup. The film version doesn’t get it quite right, as if the film’s makeup and hair people refused to do something that atrocious.

But I, Tonya is effective at showing there was a lot more to “the incident” than most people know. Tonya had a tough time breaking into the top ranks of figure skating. It is a sport for perfect princesses, and Tonya was a rough girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

Even when Tonya performed a skating maneuver that no other skater in the US had ever done, she still had to fight for her scores. Unlike other sports, figure skating scores are subjective and the judges were openly hostile to Tonya.

The triple axel that Tonya lands at one point was so hard to do that the film had to re-create it with CGI. No film stunt skater could do it, and all the other skaters were preparing for the Olympics and didn’t want to risk an injury.

Much of the comedy comes not from Tonya, but from those around her such as a delusional self-appointed body guard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who still lives with his mother but claims to be a respected expert on international terrorism. He is surrounded by other losers and wannabes.

These people all know Tonya’s on-again off-again husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whose abusive nature pretty much negates any comedy coming from him.

People who know about “the incident” will remember the name Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Oddly she is barely in the film.

Both Margot Robbie and Allison Janney have won awards for their acting, and Janney is the favorite for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

I, Tonya does not live up to the hype of being a bonkers ride through a pop culture incident. It would have been more effective if it ditched the attempts to find humor in what is basically a case of a person who was abused for most of her life — by her mother, skating officials, her husband and the media.

People who know the story also know Tonya isn’t the main victim is this tale. But for one brief moment, she was the best skater in the world.

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