TIFF FILM REVIEW: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney Deliver In Farcical Commentary Film, I, TONYA
Before there was O.J., before there was Anna Nicole, before there was a bloody knife, there was Tonya Harding and her three-ring circus of chaotic media relationships, over-the-top personal life dramas, and tragic physical assaults. In the new TIFF film I, Tonya, young and beautiful actress Margot Robbie portrays the titular character with an excessive but careful affectation, sympathy coupled with sincere contempt. Together with a career-best performance as her mother LaVona by Allison Janney, they deliver an overall wildly entertaining movie that has as much to teach us about ourselves as it does about its subject matter. If you think about it it’s, much like, well, its subject matter.
And it is not just about Harding and Simpson. Before Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom was playing broker to the poker-addicted after a ruinous end to her ski ambitions, Tonya was waiting on tables in the midst of her booming figure skating days. It is amusing, and even startling, that there are series of pieces in this year’s awards conversations that all focus on strong, perhaps misunderstood women in sports. But if Molly is the sophisticated socialite, and Billy Jean King is the trailblazer, Tonya is most assuredly the bad girl, the self-styled white trash to bring up the rear.
Like in most of these sports-figure, misjudged celebrity biopics, we begin with an examination of the figure’s younger days and of the tocks that make them tick. In this case, the film is constructed as a mocku-documentary, with confession-room style scenes, generous amounts of voiceover, and breaks of the fourth wall by the lead character. It works because the filmmakers assume mostly correctly that we know what the story is, so the delight is in the journey.
We see how little Tonya had a big gift catalyzed by an extremely abusive mother. In some ways, Janney’s character is comically stereotypical, spiking her own coffee with booze at a skating meet or smoking in the middle of the ice. In others, she is nothing short of a monster, evoking some of those classic evil mothers that have spawned as odious a seed as Norman Bates. She is physically and emotionally cruel and if you are looking for redemption and absolution like in those two-bit sports dramas with the teary moments, you may be disappointed. The only thing admirable about the character is Janney’s gutless portrayal, stoic, biting, and nasty at times, but moderated, somehow, in its tone and measure.
As Tonya grows into Robbie, her troubles enlarge alongside her talents. Her temper and uncouthness do not help her, and she has inherited a foul-mouth straight from the gutter herself. Soon, she falls hard for fellow wrong-side-of-the-tracker Jeff (Sebastian Stan, who plays The Winter Soldier in the MCU). Having equated the back of the hand with the inside of a heart, Tonya turns this relationship too into a toxic mix of passion and punches. It is bad enough as it is, without the classist American figure skating community not wanting the unpolished Harding to represent them, and with the media chomping at the bit to bite off all that their voracious readers will chew about Tonya’s scandalous personal life.
The film tries hard to stay away from making this solely a story about the Nancy Kerrigan “incident,” and succeeds for the most part, providing other episodes of Harding’s life that make her decidedly sympathetic. This is hard to do, particularly given one or two ill-timed comments about who the public considers the victim in the ordeal (Kerrigan). But the moments are perhaps necessary, to show the rougher edges of the difficult Harding. Robbie knocks out of the park the different personas even if her acting is loud and always notable.
The well-known story aside, I, Tonya is persistently unexpected. First, it is relentlessly funny, skewering the subject matters and the ridiculousness of some off the characters, particularly the dopey criminals that carry out the vicious attack. Second, the movie is not afraid to portray Tonya as a complicated, never-quitting woman. It does not fall into the emotionally condescending traps that older films about difficult women used to. This could be a movie about any controversial sports figure (it reminds me at times of LaBeouf’s John McEnroe), and it really is post-gender.
Third, and most importantly, I, Tonya is far cleverer and has much more to say than its inviting, spoof-lite veneer may have you think. Towards the end of the 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago, after the murderous main character has been acquitted and the press left her in the cold in favor of a more sensational, headline-making homicide, Roxie Hart complains to her lawyer, who retorts that she is now yesterday’s news, she was only interesting when she could hang, and that “this is Chicago.”
Upping the ante on Chicago, I, Tonya declares, correctly, effusively, and to perfection “This is America.” Our obsession with celebrity is at times traced to O.J., but this film explains how it is that Tonya slightly preceded him. Better, as the media frenzy over her husband’s shenanigans finally dies away, a scene of O.J.’s arrest plays silently on a TV in the background. It’s both subtle and not, but the moment works and speaks volumes without saying much. It is not just that we are obsessed with any celebrity, we love to tear down our heroes. As Tonya herself declares in one of the movie’s less elusive but most effective moments, really, we are all her victimizers.
It works, because it is true.