‘I, Tonya’ Uses a Trio of Great Performances to Tell a Crazy True Story

I,_TonyaAs far as I’m concerned, Allison Janney can do no wrong.

“I, Tonya” tells the life story of Olympic skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), all leading up to the 1994 attack on teammate Nancy Kerrigan. The film also stars Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bobby Cannavale and Allison Janney while Craig Gillespie directs.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and that certainly is the case with the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident in January 1994. From death threats to money transfers to numerous people wearing wires, the story (apparently) runs much deeper than I ever knew; I always assumed that Harding knew and fully cooperated in the planning of the attack however the film chooses to portray her almost as a collateral damage victim. Featuring fourth wall breaks and mockumentary interventions, “I, Tonya” is ipso facto one of the best films about figure skating ever made but also is a showcase for some solid performances.

Margot Robbie burst onto the scene in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” but since then has never really starred in a project worthy of her talents, whether it be “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Focus” or [sigh] “Suicide Squad.” Here, she plays Harding as a rough tomboy of sorts who feels that no matter what she does and no matter how well she performs she will never win the approval of the competition judges or her own mother. Robbie has a few scenes of tearing up but most of her work is done through holding in (or occasionally letting go of) her pent-up frustration.

Playing Harding’s hard-drinking sailor-mouthed mother, Janney commands all the attention of the film’s first act. She is angering, hilarious and yet somehow we can see her point of view (“don’t talk to her, that girl is your enemy!” she shouts at a 10-year-old Tonya at skating practice). Janney has been getting Oscar talk for her somewhat brief but all-so-impactful supporting work and she would certainly deserve it. In a career filled with numerous memorable TV roles and more than a handful of standout film appearances, becoming an Academy Award nominee would just be the icing on top of the cake of an illustrious career.

Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and aside from Janney he was my favorite performance in the film. He punches Harding, shouts constantly and rocks a mustache that makes it impossible to take him seriously, so when the ish hits the fan it is all the more amusing to realize that this was the guy who actually may have altered the course of U.S. women’s figure skating.

The Kerrigan attack sequence is incredibly done and blends the drama and black comedy that the film nails at other points. My hands were getting a little clammy watching the impending assault unfold and I thought that the film was going to wrap up on that high note (“we know it’s what you all came here for” Harding tells the audience).

However the film doesn’t climax with the attack but instead shows the aftermath of it (understandable) in somewhat repetitive fashion (less so). We see Harding continue to skate, the FBI talk to numerous people and Harding assert that she didn’t know anything. The only bit of this segment I continued to find interesting was Stan running around trying to fix things despite being probably the dumbest person in the room.

Some of the fourth-wall breaks and cutting to documentary interviews are entertaining and offer some insight into the fact that different people remember the same event contrarily however at some points it is awkward and hurts the flow of the film.

Tonya Harding made a name for herself by being the first woman to ever complete a triple Axel, so it’s an ironic shame that the biopic about her life can’t stick its own landing. That being said it features three great performances (as well as a fun extended cameo from the always charming Bobby Cannavale) and also offers some insight into both the media’s need to create a story (only to abandon it when the next juicy lead comes along) and America’s obsession with heroes and villains. With a stronger ending and a tad bit more streamlined narrative, “I, Tonya” could have been something special but I enjoyed the majority of it very much and think it’s worth your time.

Critics Rating: 7/10


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