I can already tell I, Tonya is going to be bitterly divisive with most audiences, since I’m harshly divided on the film myself. For the first half hour I was totally onboard with the humorously cruel rehabilitation of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s public persona. Margot Robbie delivers a phenomenal, humanizing performance as Harding; Allison Janney is even more of a force to be reckoned with as her terror of a mother. Both women are deeply flawed, but recognizably genuine human beings from a harsh economic & social background, portrayals that transform a tabloid sideshow into something resembling empathy. Then the beatings start. I, Tonya aims for a tone similar to early Alexander Payne works like Election & Citizen Ruth, where the mood alternates rapidly between quirky comedy & pitch black cruelty. The film is far too tonally messy and not nearly confident enough in its structure for me to always make those leaps, however. It’s difficult to be in the mood to laugh half a breath after watching your protagonist get punched full force in the face, thrown against a wall, pulled by the hair, cornered with a gun, and so on. The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.
I, Tonya is told through several contradictory, direct to the camera monologues that allow characters to reshape public perception through voice-over guidance. As Harding, Robbie delivers two clear mission statements for the film through this device. In one, she complains that she’s been beaten and abused both physically & emotionally throughout her entire life without any public sympathy, while Nancy Kerrigan is America’s Sweetheart for being whacked one time in the kneecap. The dark, matter of fact humor of that statement is representative of the film’s most subversive strengths, which completely flip an outsider’s perspective on the figure skating world’s most infamous controversy. The other mission statement line is where I, Tonya completely loses me. Harding bluntly accuses the audience of continuing her abuse by lambasting her in the press after her husband & his conspirators were caught rigging the competition by bashing Kerrigan’s knee. Pointing an accusatory finger at the audience in this way might work in a more self-aware, tonally sober film, but it feels completely out of line for a black comedy that exploits Harding’s hardships for cruel humor, essentially continuing the sideshow aspect of her story that it aims to condemn. I, Tonya wags its finger by jarringly interrupting its quirky character humor with sudden & brutal acts of deeply upsetting physical violence leveled on its star. The movie continually invites you to enjoy the humor of her situation’s absurdity before telling you you’re scum for obliging. It tosses out free candy only to slap it out if your hand and call you a greedy fuck for accepting it. Separately, I was onboard for Harding’s earnest public rehabilitation and the awkward humor of her working class background. I just found the way violence & audience-shaming editorializing was used to fuse those objectives together to be deeply unpleasant, if not morally repugnant. This is a spiritually ugly film, which might be fine if it were confident enough in its own convictions to own up to that ugliness.
Because I, Tonya‘s moral self-contradiction already had me cornered in a defensive position, I found myself picking at its formal shortcomings in a way I might not have if I were more fully convinced by its tone & objectives. There’s an uncanny valley quality to the CGI of its skate routines that feels both like a distraction & a terror. Its 70s-specific needle drops (despite telling a 90s story) of songs like “Spirit in the Sky” & “Break the Chain” feel as unwittingly cliché as the soundtrack of Robbie’s last major effort, Suicide Squad. The direct-to-the-camera narration is choppily arranged & inelegantly employed, especially as the film largely drops its over-the-top comedic tone in its never-ending third act. Janney & Robbie are uniformly wonderful, but they feel like they’re floating detached from the narrative of their worthy, but mismatched costars. The way real life footage of the conspirators in Kerrigan’s attack is used to justify the continued sideshow aspect of the work soured me even more on the film’s moralistic finger-wagging and sudden bursts of bone-crunching violence. Even the Miramax logo in the opening credits churned my stomach, for reasons that should be obvious. Yet, if I were more convinced by the confidence in the tone & humor of I, Tonya I could totally see myself forgiving or even embracing this scrappy sense of crudeness in craft. Part of the reason I find the film so frustrating is that it’s almost a success, but its self-contradiction is just miscalculated enough for everything to feel like a gut-wrenching failure. I honestly spent most of the picture wishing that I was rewatching the much less prestigious Melissa Rauch comedy The Bronze instead. It’s a trashier, less tonally ambitious version of an Olympics-setting black comedy than what I, Tonya aims for, but at least it doesn’t spit in your face for laughing at its own jokes.