How unusual for a biopic like “I, Tonya” to treat its subject with such condescending ridicule. Some will say that a ‘celebrity’ like Tonya Harding doesn’t deserve any respect, but something just feels nasty about this film. It’s still a good movie, mostly due to the ace performance from Margot Robbie as Tonya and the absurd insanity of the true life story on which it is based, but it’s far from Best Picture caliber and is not destined to be an instant classic. It’s irreverent yet not campy, which often comes across as just plain mean.
Tonya Harding became a household name in the mid-nineties for all the wrong reasons. Harding was a foul-mouthed, fiery athlete who, while undeniably driven and talented, was shunned by the figure skating world because of her lack of social status and her background of poverty. Oh, and there was also that infamous 1994 incident where Harding was accused of plotting to break the knees of Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). The movie breezes through Harding’s childhood and early years, instead choosing to focus on her life after she married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and the scandal that changed her life forever.
Throughout the film we’re reminded that there are as many versions of the truth as there are participants, and the intro title card notes that this true story is based on “wildly contradictory” interviews. This may not be a 100% accurate historical retelling of what really happened that night and who knew what and when, but it’s entertaining and salacious and plays into America’s desire for the sordid trainwreck that is tabloid journalism.
The direction of the film veers into an off-putting mix of forced comedy (mostly at the expense of Harding’s overweight bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) or Tonya’s combative demeanor) and dark drama as she’s physically abused and bloodied by both her husband Gillooly and her mother LaVona (Allison Janney).
We’re subjected to watch as director Craig Gillespie repeatedly pokes fun at these stupid, poorly educated, trashy rednecks but then the characters suddenly turn on the audience and point fingers at all of us for “judging” them — before the movie goes back to more ridicule at the expense of these “wrong side of the tracks” folks. You can’t have it both ways, and that’s why overall this mean-spirited biopic didn’t work for me as well as it should’ve.