Saturday, February 10, 2018
What we always forget about Tonya Harding is that she was one hell of a skater. At the end of I, Tonya, a rugged little movie full of violent, hateful characters, we're shown a clip of the real Harding at work, and it is breathtaking. We're also shown clips of the real characters that we've just seen portrayed in the movie, as if the filmmaker wants to assure us that the people in Harding's life were indeed imbeciles, and that the actors weren't exaggerating. The American lower class gets a hammering in the movie, with director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steve Rogers getting all they can out of gaudy mustaches and cheap fur coats. It starts to feel a bit like a mean-spirited Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the poor, though the movie is highly watchable thanks to the bravura work of the cast, and the story of Harding, who comes off as a likeable if prickly underdog.
The sympathies are stacked in Tonya's favor early on, as we see her abandoned by her father, horribly abused by her mother, and regularly beaten by her husband, Jeff Gillooly. Gillespie chooses to give the beatings a slapstick feel, because otherwise the constant attacks on Harding would be unbearable for viewers. The result is not entirely successful. Harding's mother is the villain of the piece, but she's given the best lines and, as played by Allison Janney, she's the sort of villain you love to hate. We haven't had such a campy, despicable mother since Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest, but Janney comes close, especially when offering her daughter such encouragement as, "You skate like a graceless bull dyke."
Despite her mother's cruelty, Harding becomes one of the top skaters in the world, the first American woman to hit a triple axle in competition, but can't get a break from the judges because she won't change her less than wholesome image. At 23, her best years already behind her, she finds herself at the edge of a murky plot to hurt another competitor, the clean-cut Nancy Kerrigan. The plan is instigated by Gillooly and his idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who imagines himself a sort of international security expert, though he can barely find his mouth with a potato chip. Still, the crux of the movie is Harding's relationship with her bullying mother. "I made you a champion," the mother says, "knowing you'd hate me for it. That's the sacrifice a mother makes!" We later learn that mother and daughter are long estranged, which seems fine with both. Harding says at the film's conclusion that fame was fleeting and that she has spent most of her life being hated, or the subject of jokes. She also denies knowing about the plan to injure Kerrigan. "Everyone has their own truth," Harding tells us, "and life just does whatever the fuck it wants."
Margot Robbie is exceptional as Harding, demonstrating equal measures of strength, vulnerability, and pigheadedness. It's the role of a lifetime. As Harding's evil mother, Janney has already won a Golden Globe award. Sebastion Stan is excellent as Gillooly, Hauser is perfect as Gillooly's goofy pal, and if ever there was an award for show stealing, it would go to Ricky Russert as Shane Stant, the goon hired to disable Kerrigan. There's a bit too much music on the soundtrack, every new scene introduced by some banal pop song, but what kept me from totally enjoying the movie was the nagging thought that much of I, Tonya was created so audiences could laugh at the expense of poor people. A big part of the movie is Harding's lack of taste, in her clothes, her makeup, and her men. I think Gillespie wants us to like Harding, and to appreciate her instincts for survival - he even includes a bit where she tried boxing - but the well-bread folks in the audience may have too good a time snickering at these tacky, uneducated types in their blue nail polish. Harding may or may not deserve our sympathy, but this movie feels made for an elite class, for whom Harding remains a kind of boardwalk freak.