CLAUDIUS HAS NOTHING ON THIS DRAMA
Movie Review – I, Tonya
Review by Paul Preston
The high-profile spectacle of the 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Olympics scandal is so ripe for dramatization I really am surprised it hasn’t happened before now. There are a number of outlets on cable who could’ve given it the melodrama-of-the-week treatment but Odin be praised that the story fell into the more creative hands of I, Tonya writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie. The best part is, Rogers has been toiling away at very likeable dramas like Stepmom and P.S. I Love You and he could have easily brought the love, drama and tears formula to this story but instead took a sharp left and delivered up an edgy, biting and dynamically entertaining telling of this white trash soap opera.
Even Gillespie, director of Lars and the Real Girl, has been floundering in by-the-numbers dramas as of late (The Finest Hours, Million Dollar Arm), this return to form is most welcome. Rogers’ script proclaims early, “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” If you’ve ever wanted to set up an excuse to go balls-out with your filmmaking and fall within the tenents of the rules you’ve set up, this is a great way to do it. Harding, Gillooly, Harding’s mother, reporters and more all tell their tale to the camera as what they say happened plays out. The execution of this premise is so top-notch, I wanted everyone’s story to be 100% true.
Quick plot catch-up – I, Tonya covers the lead-up and fallout from the 1994 Olympics where Tonya Harding was a talented and lauded figure skater (she was the only competitor to land the triple axel) who fell into a gaggle of chowderheads (husband Jeff Gillooly, bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt and ex-con-for-hire Shane Stant) who led her down the path to threatening and eventually attacking rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. The film miraculously time-jumps all over the place without confusing the viewer, showing Tonya’s early years (played by McKenna Grace, following another good performance this year in Gifted), training under the watchful eye of her domineering mother LaVona Golden. Also covered are the early, doomed years of the Harding/Gillooly marriage and Harding’s teen years, when actress Margot Robbie first starts playing the character at fifteen years old, because have I mentioned this movie has confidence?
Robbie’s performance is fearless. Seeing as how she could skate through movies on her looks, this is another impressive performance of depth and character, not to mention a gut-shot of humor. Sebastian Stan as Gillooly delivers as well, proving there’s life for him outside his role as Bucky in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stealing all her scenes is Allison Janney as LaVona. The material helps Janney stand out as Harding’s mother is a caustic presence, doing or saying something shocking nearly every time she’s on screen. She worked three jobs to give her daughter the training to be the best but tramples all over her own goodwill by being a miserable presence. You can’t wait to see Janney in another scene, but you know it won’t go well for Tonya. Speaking of scene-stealers, Paul Walter Hauser as Eckhardt is also a highlight. Eckhardt is so sure of himself and so blazingly stupid, it sums up the brains behind the entire misguided criminal act that would disgrace Harding’s reputation.
The story is exciting, but again, the delivery is what makes this movie swing, with Gillespie taking a page from Scorsese and The Coen Brothers to make it zip, with characters talking directly to camera in the middle of the narrative, reminding you that this is all hearsay coming at you from the perspective of a number of different nincompoops. Once Eckhardt, Gillooly and hired goons take charge of the attack on Kerrigan, it even feels for a moment as if Harding might be a victim in all this, just caught up in the nonsense of the people she’s let invade her life. Don’t be fooled, this is a from-the-top-down circus of assholes getting the dark comedy treatment they deserve. The result? This movie is a blast.