Despite the rather declarative I in the title, I, Tonya, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding is not the protagonist of the film. Writer Steven Rogers avoids making her the protagonist as long as he can–really, until the third act–and instead splits it between Robbie and Sebastian Stan (as her husband). Allison Janney, as her mother, has a lot to do the first hour, not so much the second. So little, in fact, Janney–in the present-day interview clips (with the actors in old age makeup and a perplexing 4:3 aspect ratio despite, you know, digital video)–comments on how she’s not in the story much anymore.
The distance from Robbie (and Harding) lets I, Tonya get away with things like Robbie making fun of Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver, who literally has no audible dialogue other than moaning “why” over and over again after her assault, which the film plays for a laugh). Kerrigan, Harding (Robbie) opines, only got hit once. Harding had been constantly beaten first by Janney and then Stan her whole life until that point. What’s Kerrigan got to be so upset about. Ha. Funny.
Whether or not Harding actually made that statement–the script is based, in part, on interviews with Harding and the real-life Stan–is immaterial. Rogers and director Gillespie play it for a shock laugh. But I, Tonya is hardly sympathetic to Harding; Robbie will recount abuse in voiceover–or in scene; the characters occasionally break the fourth wall for effect–and then, next scene, I, Tonya will play her being assaulted for a laugh. Not so much with Stan, whose casual vicious abuse is presented utterly matter-of-fact, but with Janney. Janney’s abuse, physical and psychological, is always good for a chuckle.
Because I, Tonya wants the audience to laugh at its subjects. Bobby Cannavale, in the present day interview clips as a Hard Copy producer (the film doesn’t do anywhere near enough with explaining the Hard Copy coverage for people not somewhat familiar with the actual events), talks about how some of the participants–maybe the guys who actually attack Kerrigan–are the biggest boobs in a story made up entirely of boobs. I, Tonya, despite Harding’s participation, feels no differently about it.
Robbie’s Harding is terrorized and terrified, without an ounce of joy or even the capacity for it. The script’s got to follow a historical timeline–there’s accomplishment the first time Robbie gets away from abusive Stan, but then when she goes back to him, the movie skips ahead instead of examining. Robbie’s not just not the protagonist, she’s not even a good subject. You can’t get too many laughs out of it if you chart her descent into (apparent) alcoholism after returning to the abusive relationship.
Meanwhile, Stan’s a little bit closer to the protagonist. See, the ice-skating stuff–despite a solid performance by Julianne Nicholson as Robbie’s trainer (who simultaneously champions her for her ability and loathes her for being poor)–barely figures in. Robbie doesn’t get to essay accomplishment, just abuse, whether from Janney or Stan. Her character is completely defined by other people. Not much I in it.
But Stan. Until he starts hitting Robbie, he’s a cute boyfriend. Then he’s a scumbag one, but he’s always around in the story. Now, Stan is eight years older than Robbie, but the actual age difference was three years. Even though Stan’s performance is excellent, it might have worked better age appropriate. Because I, Tonya’s Stan is a different kind of creep than the real guy. Of course, they’re both playing characters far younger–starting at fifteen for Robbie–and, well, it’s not like the film’s going for verisimilitude. It’s going for laughs. Often really easy ones.
Like Paul Walter Hauser, as the guy who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan and Stan’s buddy. Hauser’s great. Maybe the movie’s best performance. Because he doesn’t bring any glamour to the part. Janney, despite the makeup and the funny hair and all the affect, is still doing a movie star turn. Hauser’s just this schlub.
He also gets to be the butt of some of the film’s working class poverty jokes. Though there’s a truly stunning one in Robbie’s voice over where you wonder how craven Rogers and Gillespie have to be to spit on the real-life Harding to characterize her as such. And they’re far from gracious to the character–the film conveys Harding’s assertion she knew nothing about the attack and doesn’t directly contradict it… just strongly implies there are possible unknowns. It does the same for Stan. Hauser’s character–the real-life person having died ten years before the film–gets to be the film’s single premeditating villain.
Performance-wise, outside Hauser’s kickass supporting (practically bit) turn, Stan, Robbie, and Janney are all excellent. They’re all caricatures to some degree, though Stan gets to be super-likable in the interview sections, which is problematic. Especially since, initially, Robbie doesn’t. And even after Robbie gets to be more sympathetic, she never gets to be likable. The end credits of the film exemplify three of the film’s major fails. First, the real Tonya Harding–in Hard Copy footage perhaps–is immediately more likable and sympathetic than Robbie ever gets to be. Worse, than Robbie ever tries to be. A sincere smile wouldn’t hurt. Similarly, when the film shows Harding’s heavy metal skate recitals? It’s unimaginable why Robbie, as Harding, would make that creative choice. She’s utterly joyless. The real Harding, in footage, is clearly exuberant.
Final big fail? The skating. Director Gillespie uses a lot of digital help with the editing–so again, why does the film pretend contemporary cameras for the interviews would be 4:3, but whatever–so lots of digital help for editing. He gets these long, obviously digitally-aided shots–Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is technically outstanding, regardless of content. He also uses digital help for the skating. Presumably to put Robbie’s face on a figure skater, but also to recreate Harding’s actual skating.
You’d think, given CGI technology, they would’ve been able to make that skating a tenth as impressive as Tonya Harding’s actual skating ability. They don’t. All the camerawork, all the digital help, all the editing… it’s nothing compared to the television footage of Harding skating during the end credits. I, Tonya’s Harding is as feckless about her skating as the film is about presenting her story. It would’ve been nice if the film didn’t do a constant, active disservice to itself just for some laughs.
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