“I, Tonya” playfully dramatizes the formative, triumphant and notorious periods in the figure-skating life of Tonya Harding — America’s top villain in 1994, at least until O.J. made headlines. Remembered mostly for her involvement in the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, Harding tells her side of the story, while others dispute it, in this dark comedy that humanizes Harding while having zippy fun with her shortcomings.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and written by Steven Rogers, the film reflects “wildly contradictory” accounts of events, supplied by Harding (played by Margot Robbie) and former husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in recent interviews.
It takes the form of both a faux documentary and a linear narrative. Sometimes the characters address the audience.
We meet Tonya when she is 4 and living in Oregon with her physically and verbally abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), a waitress.
LaVona finds fault with Tonya’s every action. “She’s your enemy!” LaVona, attempting to instill competitive spirit in Tonya, shouts to her daughter when the girl becomes friends with another pint-sized skater.
Skating-competition judges also express no love. With her home-sewn costumes and routines skated to ZZ Top songs, Tonya is considered too trashy and poorly bred to embody the wholesome-princess ideal they seek.
Still, her talent shines. In 1991, she becomes the first U.S. woman to complete a triple-axel jump in competition.
At age 15, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly. The two eventually marry. Echoing LaVona, Jeff beats Tonya. After their divorce, he reenters her life, disastrously.
The Kerrigan “incident” occurs during a passage of ineptness involving two goons working for Jeff and his grandeur-deluded best friend, Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). One of them whacks Kerrigan, one of Tonya’s Olympic rivals, on the knee. The FBI quickly apprehends the bumbling perpetrators. The quick-to-judge public demonizes Tonya, whom authorities link to the incident. Media outlets insanely sensationalize the story.
The question of Harding’s degree of complicity in the attack is explored but not answered by the filmmakers, who present a Harding-Gillooly he-said-she-said scenario.
While the movie isn’t a penetrating profile of Harding, it qualifies as a satisfying variation on the standard biopic and as an entertaining portrait of its title character. Gillespie winningly combines edge and sympathy.
While the humorous treatment of Tonya’s violent marriage can be problematic, the filmmakers don’t neglect to include harsher material illustrating the physical and emotional seriousness involved.
Robbie gives a commanding comic performance, playing Tonya as a force of talent, determination, spunk and rotten choices.
Janney is caustic gold as the swearing, chain-smoking, horrid LaVona.
Julianne Nicholson, as coach Diane Rawlinson, and Bobby Cannavale, as a “Hard Copy” reporter with crazy hair, complete the primary supporting cast.
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser, Allison Janney
Written by: Steven Rogers
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 2 hours