I, Tonya, is director Craig Gillespie's take on the mercurial rise and fall of Tonya Harding, the figure skating champion who threw away her career through her association with an abusive ex-husband. Gillespie tells Harding's story through a series of interviews with the principals, most made up to appear how they might look in the present time, speaking directly to the camera, and insisting that their version of events is the correct one.
The real star of the film is not the actress who plays Tonya (Margot Robbie) but Allison Janney, who steals the show as Tonya's mother from hell, LaVona Golden, a serial psychological abuser, who still manages to garner sympathy through her abrasively witty comments directed toward Tonya throughout her childhood and into adulthood (as well as directed toward us, the enraptured audience). One can't help sense that LaVona heaped abuse on her daughter both out of love and jealousylove in the sense that she wanted Tonya to be more successful in life than she was (LaVona being a waitress at a greasy spoon) and jealous once Tonya had achieved the fame and recognition that eluded her mother who was nonetheless a highly intelligent woman.
If it wasn't for Janney, I, Tonya, might have been a complete flop, as Robbie, the Australian actress who plays Tonya, is all wrong for the part. This is especially true when Robbie plays Tonya as a teenagershe simply looks too old to be believable. What's worse is how Robbie is unable to convey Tonya's likable qualitiesthat odd mixture of naivety and "trailer trash" aggression that initially endeared the public to her. Instead, Robbie comes off as too harsh, compromising her attempts to convey Tonya's more vulnerable side. While Robbie is an accomplished skater (and this is the reason why she was probably cast), I think it was a big mistake for Gillespie to use her for that reason. Without a compelling protagonist, the necessary verisimilitude is lost.
Gillespie's approach, akin to the Japanese classic, Rashomon, works best when Tonya and husband Jeff Gillooly's differing points of view are contrasted in high relief. Gillooly denied that he ever physically assaulted Tonya but that seems highly unlikely as Tonya's description of what happened has the ring of truth. At a certain point, Tonya had enough of the abuse and decided to walk away from Gilloolyshe even had to get a restraining order as he continued to stalk her (once putting a gun to her head, threatening to shoot her). But why did Tonya feel that she needed to go back to Gillooly after separating?even though she claimed it was only a temporary arrangement. Despite being on the verge of complete success in the skating world, the old demons reared their ugly headher crushing insecurities from her mother's put-downs and lack of a father figurethis led to her inevitable fall from grace.
The bizarre plot to injure Tonya's rival, Nancy Kerrigan, concocted by Gillooly's moronic pal, Sean Eckhardt, is so ludicrous that it's hard to believe that he actually thought he could pull something like this off undetected. I happen to believe both Gillooly and Harding's assertions that they were unaware that the plot was going to turn into a physical attack on Kerrigan. Gillooly insisted the initial plan was to send Kerrigan some threatening letters which might perhaps cause her to withdraw from the tournament or throw her off her game. It makes sense that Gillooly would confront Eckhardt over his lame-brain decision to have one of his confederates actually break Kerrigan's knee cap with a baton, suggesting that Gillooly had no idea what Eckhardt was ultimately up to.
Much of what happens after the attack on Kerrigan, is anti-climactic. Gillespie basically presents a basic recap as to what happened as the story reaches its not so fitful conclusion. Of interest of course are the courtroom machinations, particularly Tonya's decision to take a plea bargain and accept a lifetime ban from figure skating. Benjamin Lee, writing in the Guardian, sums it up perfectly when he writes: "The zippy fun of the first half dissipates once we reach the overly familiar scenes of the second, the focus on the harebrained criminal scheme feeling particularly sub-Coenesque. It's hardly dull but it's not quite as biting and sharply realized as it could be given the wealth of stranger-than-fiction drama surrounding Harding."
With a more convincing protagonist in the lead role, I, Tonya, might have been a tad bit more enjoyable; nonetheless, there's still Janney's performance to marvel at. And for all those who long for nostalgia, Tonya's story will bring you back to the heady days of the early 1990s, a time that feels way distant from our own.