It’s no spoiler to note that “I, Tonya” ends the way many Hollywood biopics end, with a quick glimpse of the real-life individual we have just seen skillfully impersonated for the past two hours — in this case, the disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding, fiercely incarnated by the Australian actress Margot Robbie.
Notably, we are shown not just a photograph of Harding but a clip of her history-making performance at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where she became the first American woman to land the elusive triple axel in competition. The 20-year-old Harding, then in the prime of her soon-to-be-foreshortened career, looks jubilant, fully at ease and marvelously fleet-footed; she’s a whirling dervish in turquoise fringe.
It’s telling that this is the image the movie leaves us with: a reminder that before she became a national pariah, her name forever linked with that of her erstwhile rival and alleged victim, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding was every inch a champion.
Of course, the clip is also an opportunity for us to mentally replay Robbie’s performance and draw favorable comparisons with the real deal. Like judges in our own personal thespian Olympics, we are invited to admire the skill and precision with which Robbie nails Harding in that glorious moment — her fragile joy, her exultant grin and her extraordinary athletic prowess (the latter reproduced on-screen with a seamless digital assist).
“I, Tonya,” in other words, makes no attempt to hide its eagerness for the audience’s approval. That’s both apt and more than a little disingenuous, since the hasty, fickle judgment of the masses is one of the movie’s chief satirical targets.
In focusing on Harding in the years before that incident, from her tough working-class upbringing in Portland, Ore., to the relentless abuse she endured at various hands, “I, Tonya” issues a sharp, acerbic corrective, as well as a sympathetic plea for the fundamental humanity and decency of its much-battered heroine. Directed with brash, crowd-pleasing flair by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), the movie is a deeply American tragedy in white-trash black-comedy drag, an unruly feast of mock-documentary interviews, unreliable narrators and other glib assaults on the fourth wall.
Its point seems to be that while the truth may be uncertain, the public can always be counted on to jump to the most sordid possible conclusions. And the writer Steven Rogers, who based his screenplay on “wildly contradictory” interviews with Harding and Gillooly, does not set the record straight so much as revel in its holes and contradictions. Shuffling a cast of clashing voices who riff and annotate the story as it goes along, the movie dares us to guess whether we are watching a truthful depiction, a garish exaggeration or a snarky amalgam of both.
And so you may wonder how much the real LaVona Golden, Harding’s estranged mother, resembled the withered, withering Gorgon embodied here by a scene-stealing Allison Janney. Spraying expletives in every direction, fixing the world with a glare that suggests a kinship with H.R. Giger’s Alien, LaVona smacks her daughter around physically and verbally, berating her performance on the ice and demanding that she see her teammates as rivals rather than friends. (Tonya is played in her younger years by Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace.)
As LaVona points out, there’s a method to her meanness. “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it,” she snarls in one of her few printable lines. “That’s the sacrifice a mother makes.”
But it is Tonya we see bearing the burden of that sacrifice, forced to grow up in a loveless household and doomed to marry the first handsome loser she meets: Jeff Gillooly, nicely played by Sebastian Stan as a mustache in search of an IQ. When it comes to smacking Tonya around, Jeff more or less picks up where LaVona leaves off.
That makes Gillespie’s movie one of just a few films this year to grapple with issues of class, privilege, perception, celebrity and the elusiveness of the American dream, which is a rare enough achievement to make you wish it were a better one. The story’s forebears are self-evident: With its killer soundtrack and bold, muscular camera moves, “I, Tonya” is clearly conceived in the epic tall-tale vein of “Goodfellas” or “American Hustle,” even as it questions and undermines its own narrative at every turn with a flippancy that recalls movies like “The Big Short.”
These are cheaply entertaining but unoriginal gambits, and after two viewings I’m not convinced they’re warranted. Harding’s story, in this overly broad retelling, is not especially strong on narrative density — or, for that matter, ambiguity. When Tonya’s coach Diane Rawlinson (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) marvels, “She really did that!” in reference to an especially grueling training regimen, it’s not exactly the stuff of revelation. The attack on Kerrigan, presided over by Jeff’s dangerously delusional friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, imposing if one-note), plays out as sadly and tiresomely as most dumb-criminal schemes do.
Robbie’s performance, especially in its wrenching final moments, lights up the movie like a beacon, and her sympathetic reclamation of Harding’s image feels fully earned. But the irony of this story — especially with a title like “I, Tonya” — is that Tonya herself, easy as she is to root for, feels almost upstaged by all the secondhand goombah shenanigans on display. Gillespie may be indebted to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and David O. Russell, but the character depth and tonal control of their best work seem beyond his reach.
That may explain why all the recurring nods to Harding’s abusive past leave a peculiarly sour aftertaste. It’s not that “I, Tonya” invites us to laugh at domestic violence, exactly; it’s more that the movie doesn’t have the wit, the chops or the insight to transcend the banality of what it’s showing us. When Gillespie turns a well-aimed kick into a punchline, or lays Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” over a slap-happy montage, it’s not clear what he’s signifying, really, except maybe the limits of his own imagination.
Rating: R, for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles