It’s an interesting premise when Hollywood sets out to not only make a biopic of a less-than-revered public figure, but do so in a way that acknowledges the very subjectivity of truth — and in a very meta way. With I, Tonya, screenwriter Steven Rogers takes this plunge, mixing his story with on-camera confessionals with its principle characters, who also break the fourth wall mid-scene to address the audience directly on what did (and didn’t) actually happen.
In an unusual mashup of earnest biography and lowbrow slapstick, which on the surface seems like it’d be fitting for an ice skater who’s primarily known for sending an attacker after her chief rival. But the two never quite seem to find common ground. Largely because Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya Harding is so disarmingly tragic that when the comedic elements force their way in, it somehow undercuts everything the film had been busy accruing.
While I’m all for genre-mashups and unconventional approaches to cinema (hell, I live for them), to have the same Tonya Harding endure a lifetime of abuse from her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), then turn to the camera and say “I never did this” as she unloads a shotgun at her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) makes both moments feel out of place in their own movie.
For what it’s worth, the only time it does seem to work is with Janney, who not only shines as the dead-eyed, give-no-fucks Golden, she effortlessly straddles the ludicrous and the somber. Largely because neither seem to be out of reach for her character.
Despite the fact that it never quite finds its footing, I, Tonya does manage to not only humanize Tonya Harding, but make you feel sorry for her — regardless of which version of the movie’s truth you choose to subscribe to. For those of us who lived through this story, it’s easy to forget that she was, at one time, the world’s best figure skater, mired in a controversy that was rigorously consumed by the then-burgeoning 24-hour news cycle. It cast her as a villain, then punchline, and would have regardless of the outcome of any legal proceedings that followed.
Therein lies the real tragedy behind I, Tonya. Just as the movie reaches climactic gut-punch, one that forces the viewer to recalibrate their perspective on those with the misfortune of ending up in the crosshairs of a media circus, it doesn’t simply just end. Instead, it carries on for another 20 minutes or so, jumping between the serious, the comedic, and the fourth-wall-breaking, as if it was desperate to work in every minute detail about Harding’s life while capping off the film in a satisfying way.
Had it not been for the outstanding performances from Robbie, Stan, and Janney, it’d be hard to imagine I, Tonya really working. Lucky for us, we don’t have to.
I, Tonya is now playing theaters everywhere.