Greg Eichelberger reviews 'I, Tonya'

By: 
Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

A spate of recent historical events have been captured on celluloid ("Only the Brave," "The 33," "13 Hours," "Battle Of the Sexes," "The Post," among others) within the past year, among stories from World War II ("Dunkirk," "Darkest Hours") included.
Here, we go back only to 1994 as director Craig Gillespie ("The Finest Hours," "Million Dollar Arm") helms Steven Rogers' ("I Love the Coopers") comic tale of the incidents surrounding the infamous attack on champion figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by the idiots surrounding an up-and-coming skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, "Legend of Tarzan," "Suicide Squad"). At least that's what we're told. Actually, the tale is more of the depressing and despairing young life of Harding who is raised by an absent father and an almost unbelievably sadistic mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, "Girl On the Train," "Mom" TV series and also an Emmy nominee on TV's "The West Wing") who utilizes the tot's talents on the ice to mold her into a champion. Of course, as most trailer park refugee women seem to do, Tonya eventually marries an ignorant, violent scumbag, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, "Logan Lucky," the Marvel "Captain America" franchise) with a fat, lazy, idiotic sidekick, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, "Virginia") who fancies himself as some kind of security expert/bodyguard.
Most of the picture shows Tonya skating (and losing many competitions because of her unorthodox dresses, makeup, musical choices and attitude), dealing with her horrid mother, getting beat up by and then beating up Gillooly, struggling with meaningless dead end jobs as well the flabby schmuck, Shawn, who makes vague plans to get someone in Tonya's way out of it ...
It's not that Harding is not talented. As an athlete, she has consummate skills and amazing strength — even becoming the first American female figure skater to complete the almost impossible triple axel on the ice during competition. The problem is that she — somehow — continues to stand by the buffoons in her life that should have been cut loose years ago. Her mother even throws a knife at her and then questions her wedding to Gillooly (OK, that last item was NOT such a bad thing).
It's not, because the jerk continues to punch, slap, belt and even shoot at her, but she sees fit to go back to him over and over again (even AFTER a bitter divorce). She does, however, dump her ineffective coach and bring on a talented instructor. Convinced to change some of her habits (and with the assistance of that fabled triple axel), she wins national titles in 1991 and '93. She also participated in the 1992 Olympics in France and is also on the verge of being chosen for the '94 games in Norway.
Meanwhile, she is facing a tough, but evidently outwardly genteel, Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, "Paper Towns"), whom the film claims was once Harding's roommate (and they even allegedly smoked cracked together). The movie then equivocates and shows Gillooly and Eckhardt discussing an attack on SOMEONE, but never really saying who until some brain-dead thug friend of Eckhardt's whacks Kerrigan's knee during a practice in Detroit. These scenes are hilarious, however (well, as hilarious as a young woman getting cracked in the kneecap can get these days).
There's really no spoiler action needed, since just about EVERYONE over the age of 30 remembers the situation and the results of the whole thing. It's all quite darkly humorous and told in a docudrama fashion (think the "Office" and "Parks and Recreation" TV series) that even breaks the fourth wall (think the conclusion of "Goodfellas" and other pictures) that holds viewer interest with the oft-heard tale.
There's really no need to mention anything about cinematography, set design or art direction as this is story-driven and not "Amadeus." Here, it's the story and especially the acting that people come to see. Robbie, who had seemingly made a career of starring in mediocre or just plain terrible productions, makes an amazing transformation. Her rude, vulgar, slutty, abrupt, gum-chewing, chain-smoking Tonya Harding is simply mesmerizing and was honored with a Golden Globe nomination (with a sure Academy Award nod to follow), while another standout is the pudgy, blubbery Hauser, who's character argues with news media claiming he is an expert in international terrorism despite living in his mother's basement. His arguments with Gillooly over the "incident" and who's to blame is absolutely side-splitting.
However, the real thief here is Janney, who runs off with the movie as (well as a Golden Globe and most likely the Oscar) as a mommy who makes Faye Dunaway (and EVEN Joan Crawford) look like Mother Theresa. She is at once goofy and far over-the-top then, suddenly, shatteringly authentic and brutal. It's the role of lifetime and one which Tonya Harding herself said was "spot-on."
And far as Harding goes, I know the point of the production is to give some sort of redemption to her wasted life—not only did she fail on the ice eventually, being banned from competitive figure skating for life, but also devolving into an embarrassing grappling "career" and then working on the "World's Dumbest" series on TruTV (yikes!).
She was truly a bruised and defeated spirit and a victim more often than not, but we do make our own beds, for the most part, so this attempt at absolution seems a bit cynical. It's up to the viewers, though. Does it work? Maybe we'll need another 25 years to figure that one out.
Grade: B-

Category: