I, TONYA Review

Director: Craig Gillespie

Genre: Drama, Comedy

Year: 2017

It’s hard to determine if the tonal experiments of I, TONYA are successful or not. In an effort to have its cake and eat it too, director Craig Gillespie dares audiences to enjoy a true crime story as a semi-comic romp, only to pull the rug and point its finger right back at the audience by way of FUNNY GAMES. Simultaneously bold and arrogant, I, TONYA is at least aware of the elements that make Tonya Harding’s story relevant and powerful. As absurd as the actual details of “the incident” are, the before and after paint a portrait of an abused woman in the heart of America, pulled at from all angles including family, friends, and eventually nearly all of modern society. If anything, it’s Margot Robbie’s performance that makes I, TONYA work at all. The film around her is an incisive, yet hypocritical anomaly, but there’s no denying the power of a performance like this.

I, TONYA follows the tale of ex-Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), from her childhood through her rise and eventual controversial fall from grace. Half presented in mock-documentary interviews, the film portrays all protagonist accounts in vicious, selfish talking heads, like PARKS AND RECREATION with some grit. Dragged around by unreliable narrators, the film depicts the hard knocked life of Harding, including her contentious relationships with her mother (Allison Janey) and spouse (Sebastian Stan). It’s a story filled with domestic abuse, crass behavior, half-brained revenge schemes, and, well, figure skating, while unearthing uneasy observations on femininity, the nature of celebrity, toxic relationships, and the troubling state of personal versus objective truth.

Me whenever I enter an Islands Burgers and Fries

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Like its trailers, I, TONYA aims for humor at very bizarre points. Stylistically speaking, Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis have followed the path of David O. Russell following the path of Martin Scorsese: the needle drops, snappy editing, and cocaine-like camera work are fun, but definitely familiar. Applying this attitude to the more disturbing elements of Harding’s story creates a really intense tonal dichotomy that isn’t inherently bad. This has worked well for films like THE INFORMANT!, and, of course, GOODFELLAS. But Gillespie seems to love this juxtaposition in premise, while not being entirely sure how to balance objectivity and subjectivity to actually achieve it. The funny parts can’t be funny without troubling awareness of its own tragic truth, which may be the point, but the film has too much fun doing it before acting like it wasn’t. The sad parts can’t blossom without feeling awkwardly positioned. Dark comedy stylings are fun, but tricky, and the tonal whiplash here didn’t feel subversive, but rather tired and clumsy when there’s something else here that deserves more.

The ensemble of this film contains a gaggle of performances that are great despite the package they’re wrapped in. Allison Janey is deservedly getting praise for her thorny performance as Harding’s mother. It’s at its best when she’s not portrayed as anything othern than her actions, but the film often drapes her with eccentric rock and roll and dolly zooms like she’s some badass anti-hero. The most successful shift and performance combo comes in Paul Walter Hauser, playing Harding’s friend-in-law and “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhart. Bouncing from thoroughly hilarious to genuinely disturbing is very easy for Hauser in this role. Perhaps it’s because too much attention is paid to his side of the plot for the film’s overall good, but he makes some magic while he’s in the spotlight. Him and Sebastian Stan, who is gloriously pathetic and creepy as Harding’s spouse, have modestly entertaining moments in a film that incidentally and unfairly hijack, thus making their inclusion feel incorrect more than successful.

You, a plebian: But-but-but to play ZZ Top at such a horrifying scene would be MADNESS!

I, TONYA, a Cool Movie: Please fasten your diaper.

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Then there’s Tonya Harding herself, portrayed with fire by Margot Robbie. Despite disappearing for unfortunate chunks of the film, Robbie never lets a scene she’s featured in go by without being even a little magnetic. Even if the film glosses over Harding’s personal tragedies, Robbie reminds you that she’s real, and those real occurrences have real consequences on her real feelings. Her spunky, passionate presence is like a constant reminder that the tricks going on around her are completely undeserving of her. It’s like she’s trying to escape her own film, a pulpy, rote thriller with comic-bend. By the time she’s caught up in the hijinks of it all, be it in “interview” or dramatization, Robbie’s Harding shows unfiltered human pain. Gillespie at least offers her two truly special moments to shine: once in a mirror before a climactic performance, where Robbie performs silent, dramatic kung-fu by applying make up and having a panic attack, and another at a stand in court. Unlike the distracting CGI of the figure skating sequences, the performing here has blood coursing through its veins, and calls to light reality underneath this pretentious artifice.

I, TONYA opens with a title card saying it’s “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews.” It then proceeds to spray paint the word “irony” onto the screen, muddling the definition and idea of irony being portrayed with any sense of decorum or expertise, too proud of the bone it found to even consider proper responsibility. It’s smug, like the cinematic equivalent of the Dreamworks Animation eyebrow. It’s unfortunate that the raw material itself seems capable of being edited into a more consistent and considerate portrait. Of course this story and the emotions it engenders are complicated, and of course form is allowed to pursue an effort to recreate those feelings in execution. I, TONYA just doesn’t do a great job at it, at least with this kind of attitude. At the expense of great performances (the world would feel balanced if Margot Robbie and Allison Janney got nominated at the Oscars and nothing else from this film did), it can’t justify exercising what it’s also indicting.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

Rocky Pajarito

Rocky Pajarito is a Crossfader guest contributor, writer, pop-culture enthusiast, and filmmaker based in Orange County, CA. He will try, and fail, in bringing up the film MACGRUBER in every single thing he writes.

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