Somewhere near the nexus of The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, the disarmingly entertaining I, Tonya reframes one of the late 20th century’s great villains in a new, more well-rounded light, but still doesn’t completely let her off the hook.
Based on interviews with Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, the screenplay by Steven Rogers posits the two-time Olympic figure skater (played from the age of 15 up by a career-best Margot Robbie) as the product of an abusive mother LaVona Golden (an intense Allison Janney) and low economic standing in Portland, Oregon — neither of which jive with the skating world's expectations.
The combination of these factors then made her seek an escape with Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the first boy to ask her on a date, not pausing to think whether she might be jumping into a similar, if not worse situation with longterm ramifications the likes of which she’s incapable of imagining.
A tremendous stylistic step forward for typically vanilla director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm; The Finest Hours), I, Tonya uses fourth-wall breaking and a balanced arsenal of other tricks to address the couple's domestic violence and additional woes with a darkly comedic tone that doesn’t lessen the severity of Tonya’s situation, but makes it easier to process.
Complemented by a stellar soundtrack of ‘70s and ‘80s rock jams, the film also delivers well-executed skating sequences where one has to look closely to spot where Robbie’s ice work ends and that of her stunt doubles and the effects crew begins.
Rounding out the tricky tonal balance and that of occasionally contrasting recollections are present day, documentary-style interviews that bring in the perspectives of Jeff, LaVona and Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson, Black Mass).
Getting just enough time in this vein is former Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), a representative of the then-new 24-hour news cycle that fed and fed on the Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal until the next big story of 1994 arose.
Maddox’s inclusion helps paint Tonya’s struggles in a broader societal manner as a way of examining how media coverage has evolved and points a finger at potentially misled viewers, the bulk of whom likely come to the film convinced of her involvement with Kerrigan’s shocking injury, which the core players here dub “The incident.”
Though certainly no slouch in the build-up, I, Tonya truly hits its groove in this penultimate stretch, allowing Paul Walter Hauser to grab the spotlight as Tonya’s slovenly “bodyguard” and Jeff’s best friend Shawn Eckhardt.
Truly as delusional as he seems, as evinced during the credits through clips of his actual televised interview with Diane Sawyer, Shawn and his harebrained hitmen Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds) and Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) doom whatever plans he and Jeff had of giving Tonya an Olympic edge.
The fallout for Tonya and those around her is the stuff of history, but through their concerted efforts in bringing to life its retelling and reexamining what occurred, Gillespie, Robbie and company elevate I, Tonya to cinematic greatness.
Grade: A. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre