IGN
I, Tonya Review

Dec 7

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Okay, pop quiz: What do you actually know about Tonya Harding?

Assuming you were around in the 1990s and actually remember who Tonya Harding is, you can probably only recall a handful of the major bullet points. Tonya Harding was an Olympic figure skater. She was at least partially responsible for a violent assault on one of her competitors, Nancy Kerrigan. She was all anyone could talk about in 1994, before fading into relative obscurity. (You might also recall that she co-starred in the 1996 low budget action movie Breakaway, but let’s be honest, you probably don’t.)

Tonya Harding’s story is strange, it’s sad, and it’s now the subject of a brisk new drama from director Craig Gillespie. Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding, and she lights every firecracker at her disposal, giving a truly explosive performance inside a movie that merely pops.

That’s because I, Tonya is, at its core, a very conventional biopic. It follows Tonya Harding from her difficult childhood to her difficult adulthood, both eras in her life which were marked by abhorrent abuse. Her mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), dedicates herself to Tonya’s figure skating career but verbally assaults her at every turn, justifying that brutality as a form of negative reinforcement. Later, Tonya grows up and falls in love with the alarmingly insecure Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who is, at turns, nurturing or violent.

Tonya asserts her dominance on the ice, mastering the nearly impossible triple axel, but rejecting the wholesome image of the sport with her heavy metal music and confrontational outbursts. She is, like the subject of many biopics before her, overcoming her tragic circumstances through her artistry, and it seems like she’s finally on a path to celebrity and greatness when her idiot husband and his idiot best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) conspire to give Tonya the edge on her competitors.

The rest, as they say, is history. But I, Tonya is more concerned with hearsay. All the nuts and bolts of Tonya Harding’s life are the stuff made-for-tv movies are made of, so Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers concoct their movie out of personal, biased, self-congratulatory interviews with the major players, all of whom are all-too-eager to excuse themselves and blame everybody else.

It sounds infuriating but there’s an undeniable appeal to watching Tonya Harding, as Jeff Gillooly remembers it, chase her husband out of the house with a shotgun and then turn to the camera and complain that as far as she’s concerned, none of this actually happened. It’s like the whole movie is daring us to call it a liar. but this freewheeling approach to the biopic genre works even better in films like Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, where the well-documented facts of James Brown’s life were already nearly impossible to believe.

I, Tonya gets a lot of mileage out of its style, but again, deep down it’s still a fairly conventional tale of rags to riches, then back to rags again. It couldn’t possibly work without an actor like Margot Robbie in the title role. Thank goodness they actually got Margot Robbie. She infuses Tonya Harding with a real humanity that, understandably, takes the form of wild self-destruction. The movie has to work overtime just to keep up with her energetic performance, so it can probably be forgiven for wheezing a bit due to all that effort.

The Verdict

You can’t take your eyes off of Margot Robbie’s magnetic performance in a stylish and funny movie which can’t quite overcome the familiarity of Tonya Harding’s life story.

The Wall

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