REVIEW: I, Tonya (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – Neon

The following is a review of I, Tonya — Directed by Craig Gillespie.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a biographical picture about Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie), centered around her relationship with her mother — LaVona (played by Allison Janney) — and her husband — Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) — as well as the events surrounding the infamous 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver), which, in the film, is referred to as ‘the incident.’

I, Tonya is an unconventional biopic telling a fairly straightforward and much publicized rise-and-fall story, which takes us from Tonya’s rough childhood all the way up to the highest highs and down to the lowest lows of her career as the ice skating prodigy turned national punchline is revealed to have been a punching bag to her mother and her first husband.

It is designed around these ‘wildly contradictory’ confessionals — a narrative device that is, essentially, an aside — where the essential central characters explain their actions and attempt to refute the events taking place in the film. Do note, however, that it is still the characters — played by the actors in the film — and not the real life characters presented in these confessionals. On top of that, the film combines this confessional narrative device with frequent moments in which a character breaks the fourth wall.

Let me reiterate that the film is contradictory by design. There are multiple narrators and they are all unreliable. They include both Robbie, Janney, and Stan as Tonya, LaVona, and Gillooly respectively, but also Bobby Cannavale as a tabloid television producer, among others. The American tabloid media angle is an interesting one, which I, ultimately, thought was not delved with enough.

At some points it felt underdeveloped, and there are scenes dealing with this aspect that, to me, felt like afterthoughts. One of these is a scene where Jeff Gillooly watches as the media leaves his front yard, while the O. J. Simpson controversy is being shown on television. Really, the story in this film is yesterdays news once O. J. Simpson becomes a controversial figure — and I wish they had paid more attention to this angle, instead of operating with what I thought was a slightly scattershot biopic that is ultimately somewhat uneven.

I have a lot of issues with I, Tonya. Some of them are more forgivable — like how the visual effects (namely the head replacements) used in the fascinating ice skating scenes are iffy, at best, and distracting, at worst — but some of my others issues are more alarming — like how I ultimately disagree with the tone of this film. I, honestly, think that the film is condescending to its own characters, and even condescending to Tonya Harding. To me, it felt like the film was trying to make fun of the very same things that the ice skating judges disliked about Harding, in an effort to get an unconvincing argument across that the audience is complicit in her life taking a turn. This did not at all work for me.

While I enjoy a lot of songs on the film’s soundtrack, many of the musical choices are unsubtle digs at characters and are distractingly obvious choices. I also found it distracting how unconvincing it was that the fantastic Margot Robbie, at one point, is playing a fifteen-year-old version of Tonya. That is the most unbelievable part of I, Tonya. What, on the other hand, is the most frustrating thing about this film is that Nancy Kerrigan, the victim of the aforementioned ‘incident,’ is largely absent from a picture that isn’t quite a hagiographic portrait of Harding but certainly is overly sympathetic towards her.

Director Craig Gillespie, who is perhaps best known for his films Lars and the Real Girl and The Million Dollar Arm, has made this new film that is based entirely on the style — visual and musical – of directors like Martin Scorsese that his inspiration could not be any clearer unless he had lifted songs directly from Scorsese’s soundtracks and, perhaps, used The Rolling Stones‘ “Gimme Shelter” in I, Tonya.

Imitations of films like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Streets — like Adam McKay’s The Big Short — are very popular nowadays, and I, Tonya is one of these. Strangely, I, Tonya shares an undesirable trait with The Wolf of Wall Street in that it is also just too long. It outstays its welcome.

Unfortunately for Gillespie, while he certainly tries to make I, Tonya energetic and, indeed, electric, I did not think it held together as well as the aforementioned McKay film or the two Scorsese films did — I, Tonya felt scattershot and, as a result, felt fairly uneven, to me.

I know that it sounds like I really disliked I, Tonya, but that really is not the case here. While I did, admittedly, like the film, I was just severely underwhelmed and slightly unimpressed, is all. What does work for the film is the ice skating (except for the head replacement) and, above all else, three truly outstanding performances that improve upon this product greatly.

Allison Janney is really great as LaVona — Tonya’s mother — and it is a wonderful character for an actor to play. She is downright diabolical at times, and Janney is just perfect in the role, which could have easily been a one-note performance with a lesser actress. I was also particularly impressed by Sebastian Stan, who has not really been given a lot of awards attention for his work in this film.

And, of course, we have to talk about Margot Robbie, who, with this performance as Tonya Harding, has moved on from her past work and solidified herself as a leading lady in big pictures like this one. The Wolf of Wall Street shot her onto the scene, Suicide Squad made her ‘a name,’ and I, Tonya makes her a star. She is brilliant, especially in the film’s final scenes, once her fate is sealed.

Therefore, while I do, ultimately, have some very noticeable and alarming issues with Gillespie’s I, Tonya, it remains a strong film for the fact that the three central performances are, indeed, so strong that they overshadow what problems might otherwise be particularly troubling.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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