Outrageous, absurd, and wildly entertaining, “I, Tonya” is a brilliantly crafted cacophony of discordant voices all coming together in a chorus of unforgettable craziness.
At its heart, of course, is the rise and fall of one-time U.S. figure skating champion Tonya Harding, and the bizarre scandal that ended her career as well as tied her forever to rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.
But what makes the film truly outstanding is just how well cast and crew bring that story to life within the context of Harding’s personal life before and after the scandal, with everyone involved, Harding included, all remembering things just slightly differently.
The differences lead to jaw-dropping discrepancies and hilarity all around, but also paint a mesmerizing portrait of a young woman who was behind the eight-ball from minute one, and fought her way, for better or worse, into success, stardom, and eventually infamy.
“I, Tonya” presents itself as a documentary of sorts. Each of the primary players – Harding (Margot Robbie), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding’s mother, Lavona Golden (Allison Janney), and a few others – addresses the audience directly, looking right at the camera, as though they were being interviewed in the present day, sharing their recollections.
Of course, none of them remembers the events quite the same way. In fact, it’s not long before it becomes clear that they’re all remembering the events in a way that’s all too human: the way they need to in order to reconcile the anger, guilt, regret or resentment that still informs those memories.
In effect, that results in not one single character in the film being a reliable narrator. What’s truly remarkable is that while individually each person’s take on the events is self-serving, collectively they provide a story that has a surreal ring of truth.
Janney for the win
As hyperbolic as this may sound, there isn’t a single even remotely weak performance in “I, Tonya.” Director Craig Gillespie provides opportunities for each of the principals to deliver intense, complex turns – there are no flat characters here, no lazy characterizations or stereotypes.
Even the abject idiocy of Gillooly’s chief accomplice, self-proclaimed “terrorism expert” Shawn Eckardt, gets a nuanced treatment, if only to provide the audience with a complete picture of the man’s bizarre behavior and claims.
But if there’s one truly standout performance in the film, it’s that of Allison Janney as Lavona. Without a doubt she’s the easiest to hate throughout the film – Janney’s uncompromisingly acidic take on the woman makes it all but unavoidable.
And yet there’s a humanity in Janney’s delivery that keeps Lavona from becoming entirely a cartoon villain. There’s always the sense that whatever Lavona is came from somewhere else, and thus Lavona sees herself as wholly undeserving of the blame her daughter throws her way.
Janney’s performance alone makes “I, Tonya” must-see material for fans of smaller films and potential Oscar picks.
That’s not to say Margot Robbie’s work in the title role is somehow secondary. Robbie completely inhabits the role and disappears into it, even when playing Harding as an awkward teen with braces and bad hair, or on the ice in a glittery leotard surrounded by other age-appropriate actors playing young teen skaters.
Together with the rest of the ensemble, they deliver the perfect cinematic trainwreck, the only type of vehicle worthy of bringing this infamous story to life in a way that does its madness justice.
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser and Bobby Cannavale. Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity.