“I, Tonya” is the Tonya Harding film you never knew you wanted: an outrageously entertaining reappraisal of the Olympic figure skater who, in 1994, was involved in a scheme to injure her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
Resurrecting Harding from the yellowed pages of ’90s tabloids may seem about as necessary as a production of “Lorena Bobbitt on Ice.” But yesterday’s media spectacle has been very good for today’s movies. It’s no surprise by now that the tabloid caricatures sketched in a sensational news stories don’t always do justice to the truth.
The more layered truths behind scandals of the past have made for some great documentaries (particularly last year’s “O.J.: Made in America” and “Hot Coffee,” the illuminating story behind the coffee that was “too hot”) and a number of recent dramatic highlights, like Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming “Molly’s Game,” about the woman callously dubbed the “poker princess” by the tabloids.
Craig Gillespie’s movie — an “I, Claudius” for less regal times — isn’t a sober reassessment of Harding. It’s a winking, rollicking dark comedy both empathetic and pugnacious. It reframes Harding’s story as an American tragicomedy with some of the unapologetic, this-is-the-real-America sneer of “GoodFellas.” “I, Tonya” is a peek behind a media circus that can’t help going along for the ride, too.
“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers, is introduced as: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” It begins in a mock-documentary style with the characters — Margot Robbie as Harding, Sebastian Stan as Gillooly — giving present-day interviews recalling “the incident.” Their stories sometimes converge, sometimes deviate and the movie — in a well-worn gimmick — playfully pauses at various points with characters turning to the camera to relay their perspective.
The approach sometimes spoils the fun of “I, Tonya,” but Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is kinetic and the performances keep “I, Tonya” hurtling forward. Especially Allison Janney. She plays Harding’s bitter, abusive, chain-smoking mother, LaVona, and her performance is a monument of brutal, caustic wit. In the film’s early scenes at their Portland, Ore., hometown, she puts a 4-year-old Tonya on the ice and smirks as she skates loops around much older and more well-to-do competitors. But she’s downright mean, too. In one scene, she refuses to let Tonya go to the bathroom. When Tonya pees herself, LaVona declares, “Skate wet!”
And that is, on the scale of things, not the worst of the abuse heaped on Harding. Once she finally flees her mother’s cruelty, she moves in with Gillooly — a leap from the frying pan to the fire if ever there was one. Their romance is sweet at first, but he soon begins hitting her, especially as Harding’s career blossoms. (She was the first U.S. skater to land a triple axel.)
“I, Tonya” casts its infamous protagonist, nicknamed “Trashy Tonya,” as a working-class insurgent in a glitzy and prim sport. She’s proudly “poor and redneck,” jogging with bags of dog food hoisted on her back and performing skating routines set to ZZ Top. Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Their Finest Hours”) fills his movie with tasteless interiors and period scrunchies, and scores it with a blaring rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack that plays across Harding’s on-ice triumphs and domestic poundings, alike.
Robbie, in her finest performance yet, plays Harding as above all a survivor, smiling through pain and prejudice as she pursues her dream, only to be dragged down by those around her. She’s a punching bag who should be pitied, but is instead made a punchline when the Coen brothers-esque scheme by Gillooly — likewise a victim of his associates — and bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) rapidly spins out of control.
“I, Tonya” has fun with the various versions of the Kerrigan attack, treating it like “Rashomon” for idiots. But the main takeaway is a believable one: that Harding, just 23 at the time, deserved better than yet another beatdown meted out by a much-entertained public.
“America,” she says. “They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.”