Dir. Craig Gillespie. Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
I, Tonya reminds me of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. They begin similarly. Both of them are absolutely terrified that you might not get the point, and so they begin with this awful lectorial pedantry. Three Billboards starts with the billboards, unveiling them interminably (Too Many Billboards, anyone?) and making sure we just soak up every bit of their existence. I, Tonya begins with “interviews” of the subjects: Tonya Harding (Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Stan), LaVona Harding (Janney). They say everything we need to hear about Tonya Harding within five minutes. It’s so awful that it took my breath away; this is what happens when the five paragraph essay makes its way into film. I mean, just look at this:
Diane: Generally people either love Tonya or are not big fans. Like people either love America or are not big fans. Tonya was totally American.
A human being standing in as a metaphor for America! Good grief!
Tonya: That I’m a real person. That I didn’t ever apologize for growing up poor or being a redneck, which is what I am. In a sport where the friggin’ judges want you to be this old-timey version of what a woman’s supposed to be.
The whole movie is like this. This is the conclusion that two documentaries made about Tonya Harding have come to. This is the conclusion that everyone came to in the ’90s once the shock of the assault on Kerrigan passed over, and it’s the conclusion that has held up as the conventional wisdom ever since. (My anecdotal proof: when Nancy Kerrigan got her knee obliterated, I had just turned three, and I came to I, Tonya with those conclusions without having suffered through the news coverage.) And yet I, Tonya is peeing itself with fear, terrifically afraid that you won’t get it without multiple people telling you how to get it. The movie never recovers from its own self-inflicted hobbling.
In the quote I used up above from Tonya, the next thing she says is that she’d like to be remembered for being the first American woman to pull off a triple axel in competition. The movie takes a little time to explain (in interviews, of course) what makes a triple axel so difficult, and there’s a reason you don’t see a whole lot of it in the women’s game, where the skaters tend to be lighter and lack the power to spin themselves around three and a half times. Harding did her first triple axel in 1991. The first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics is Mirai Nagasu, who did so in Pyeongchang. She was born in 1993. Harding was an absolute powerhouse, totally ahead of her time as a personality and a skater; her music choices were as unorthodox in the early ’90s as Gillespie’s music choices here are completely conventional, and nowadays skaters perform to all kinds of music. And the movie decides to use the triple axel not as evidence of Tonya’s trailblazing greatness but as proof that she’s not the kind of woman who could be allowed to win figure skating competitions. It’s an enormously confusing approach, one that’s indicative of the film’s vision: it sees everything that Tonya Harding does as a way to victimize her. I would be fascinated to see what a woman director would make of this story for a million reasons, but above all else I simply can’t imagine that a woman director would be so incredibly reductive. The film has a handle on this take—no woman who isn’t a baby June Cleaver can make her way in figure skating—but it’s not incisive, never pushes hard enough to see anything other than this skin-deep understanding of the sport’s relationship with performative femininity.
A little while ago I effusively praised Loving as a biopic, because I had this idea that a biopic should more or less reflect the character of its protagonist. In Loving, a reserved, hemmed-in couple leads a reserved, hemmed-in movie. In I, Tonya, characters who belong on a reality television program are in a two-hour very special episode of I Love the ’90s. The fourth wall is broken multiple times. The interviews are, just in case we couldn’t tell through the different costumes everyone’s wearing and the fact that they are talking to the camera in response to unheard questions, in 1.33:1 while everything else is in 2.39:1. You could tell me that the movie was scored from one of Craig Gillespie’s Spotify playlists and I would believe you. There’s a line where Tonya (in an interview, of course!) says that it’s terribly ironic that Nancy gets hit once and the world weeps for her, while she’s been beaten every day of her life since she was little and no one seemed to care. It’s almost a good point as long as you strip all the context away from it, including the context of the film itself. I, Tonya glorifies in every beating that Jeff parcels out and every kick to the junk Tonya gives him in return. There are episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos, another ’90s standby, which featured fewer nutshots than this movie does. I, Tonya is a movie desperately hoping for a laugh—nowhere is that clearer than the character of Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who is made the prize idiot of this particular carnival and who is almost admirably unfunny—and herein lies the problem with the biopic. It may have reality television characters at its center, and it may be outrageous and loud and brutish. It doesn’t realize that this makes I, Tonya incredibly sad instead of darkly comic. Tonya Harding should be an American figure skating icon; if she had come around twenty-five years later, she would have a cult following like Adam Rippon’s. That’s tragic, not funny.
Robbie is the wrong Tonya, plain and simple. Since The Wolf of Wall Street, she has carved out a place for herself with a wry humor and an instinct for self-effacing roles. (Remember that Vanity Fair article about her that was everything wrong with the way we talk about actresses?) There’s a good argument to be made that no actor since prime Johnny Depp has made more use of makeup to change our vision of her. Her Harley Quinn makeup belongs on the 21st Century movie makeup Rushmore with Captain Jack Sparrow, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Nina Sayers’ Black Swan getup. If the Mary, Queen of Scots trailer is any indication, her Elizabeth is going to go around in that historically accurate/terrifying whiteface with some frequency. And in I, Tonya, Tonya Harding’s really ungood Lillehammer makeup is applied for extra effect. It’s an A-for-effort scene, but it’s our clearest sign that casting Robbie is a failure. Although her performance is pretty strong when Gillespie isn’t photobombing it, putting Robbie in the role and uglying her up is a miscalculation. Tonya Harding wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t because she had no control over her blush. If Margot Robbie is Tonya Harding, then the reason she looks like that is because she’s a slob, not because it’s the early ’90s or because she lost the genetic lottery. Tonya Harding wasn’t (and presumably isn’t) a slob. She was a hick, which I, Tonya knows, but that’s not at all the same thing; she was unvarnished. Whacking Robbie over the head with an ugly stick for the movie is the exact opposite of where the movie should go.
I hope someday to be able to watch I, Tonya without thinking about Lady Bird. (I’m kidding. I have no interest in seeing this movie again.) I say this because I would like to be able to watch Janney’s performance as LaVona without thinking about how badly Laurie Metcalf got jobbed at the 90th Academy Awards, and I wonder if that’s playing into my general apathy concerning what is the best-reviewed element of the film. Janney is very good, although there cannot possibly be an easier role to play than “terrible mother” in the filmic firmament. There’s nothing remotely like the triple axel in a wig, a cigarette, and some choice swear words.