I, Tonya

I, Tonya ★★★½

The movie we had been waiting for to show the full tilt range of Margot Robbie, and it was the terrific docudrama I, Tonya about the life and scandal of ice skating pro Tonya Harding. We’ve always associated professional ice skaters as graceful swans of the ice, but the anomaly on Tonya was that she was the ugly duckling of the ice, but one whose physical dexterity was validated by her expertise of the triple axel.

In an insightful way, director Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl") dramatizes the white trash depths of where Tonya came from. When Tonya tried hard to go “pretty” to please the judges, she couldn’t succeed all the way because there still was a disreputable stench that surrounded her aura. Robbie, one of the most stunning beauties of the world, was to me an inspired choice to do this role. If Robbie, or a beauty like her, had no graces or sensuality or even sense of hygiene – then well, she’s be like Tonya Harding, a hick from the other side of the tracks. Robbie sheds everything, her physical beauty, her radiance, her confidence — and it says, if you shed all that, then it’s easy to become that ugly duckling. The best you can say about Robbie’s performance is that it is so good that she becomes invisible and we feel for the real Tonya.

I, Tonya is for a long time is an amazing movie and for a long time feels faultless. It feels, uh, regrettable that it feels like it’s missing one or two things in the final third. Yet the movie accomplishes so much while it's at it.

SPOILER ALERT: What the movie does in its entirety is practically absolve Tonya (well, if you agree with me) of any wrong-doing in the incident where her rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knee was whacked. The movie is muddled when it comes to whether Tonya’s husband (Sebastian Stan) either deliberately had Nancy’s knee bashed or whether it was miscommunication with the thugs he hired. That the movie gives such a vivid psychological profile of the sleazeball husband Jeff Gillooly we are able to surmise an answer for ourselves if it doesn’t explicitly come out and say it.

There’s a moment of sensational intrigue when it shows months earlier that Tonya and Nancy were friends, and that they ate pizza, chugged soda together and had fun — and that’s it, as we were waiting for the movie to show more. I think the movie could have followed-through on that intrigue and told us more about their friendship.

We’ve always thought of Nancy Kerrigan as this angel of the ice, but the movie could have done a better job with her — we only get the surface level of Nancy here; the actress that plays her is one-note. There’s also short shrift with a Hard Copy Producer (played by Bobby Cannavale as a pirhana-like news guy), who has a few sleazy news guy moments but never comes through on the story like he should.

Nevertheless, we're constantly fascinated. We gain sympathy of Tonya early. She was beaten by her mother (Allison Janney) and then by the time she was in her late teens, her husband. It’s such a great, profane performance by Janney, because she keeps butt-kicking her daughter to do better, to become the best in the world, only to be so easily disappointed by her progeny. She’s a terrible mother, yet it’s sad to see her disappear from the story like she does. Like bad tabloid, we just want more of the sordid details. I wish Janney had more scenes so we could get all the angles on her, for instance, her marriage disintegrates but we don’t get a revealing scene as to tell all why.

Yet, it sounds like I complain too much? There are many sordid details in what is such a fast-moving docudrama that its’ been called “The GoodFellas of Ice Skating Pictures.” When I had heard that, I felt, that’s hyperbolic. It’s both too far a stretch, and yet sort of right-on: it has the wild, off the rails narration and exuberant multi-layered storytelling. There’s movie-making virtuosity going on that manages to tell a lot of story when it comes to Tonya’s 4-year old upbringing, then her years between 17 and 23.

The movie says a lot about us Americans, too. Back when the incident went down in 1994, before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and before the Winter Olympics, if you had a vague sense of news coming at you about the scandal, you — admit it — started to get the idea that Tonya personally whacked Nancy’s knees and that she was there during it. That’s big savvy by the movie, to make us remember that our collective us jumped the gun and mixed up the consumption of events. But it really says something how screwed-up and misleading the news reports were during the time. It was so confusing how cross-currents of information was hitting everybody, that I believe, even the judge (as portrayed in the film) seemed to have misinterpreted the events.

Oh my God, it should have been an easier to digest the story correctly before it got told haphazard: the criminals were true examples of ineptitude, how hard was it to zero in on that?

I, Tonya is a tragedy played as a black comedy. A few brief hiccups from coherency aside, I am enthralled by it. And Robbie, the most confident woman in the world, plays low self-esteem brilliantly.

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