I, Tonya is the bastard child of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries and Will Ferrell's zany, off-color sports comedies. The good ones, like Talladega Nights. And in hindsight, that's probably the only way to properly tell the scandalous story of white trash ice-skating queen Tonya Harding and her tabloid-friendly attack on fellow Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. I, Tonya -- which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival -- is batshit. But it's true. Mostly. There are times when characters break the fourth wall to say that the scene you are watching never happened. It still makes for a wild ride.
All eyes will be on Margot Robbie as Tonya, but the truth is that everyone in this acerbic cast totally transforms to serve director Craig Gillespie's redneck rock opera. I, Tonya proudly wears its uncouth heritage on its bedazzled sleeve, charting the rise (and fall) of the competitive skater though a pitch-black comedic screenplay that would be righteously funny if it wasn't so damn sad most of the time.
Tonya, we're told, is the product of her environment. She was raised by a monster of a mother (Allison Janney, this movies undisputed MVP). She fell in love with an abusive, short-sighted loser named Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, understated and also fantastic in what amounts to Sid & Nancy on skates). And she could never gain the respect and acceptance of the community she so longed to call her own: the family of professional skaters.
Yes, I, Tonya succeeds in the one place I didn't expect. It allows us to sympathize with Tonya Harding. It's interesting that I, Tonya is playing alongside Borg/McEnroe in Toronto this year, as both deal with highly-competitive American sports figures who hated the fact that their accomplishments in the game were overshadowed by the drama they let into their personal lives.
No matter if you think you know the story of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, though, you'll still find plenty to draw out of I, Tonya, starting with the performances. As mentioned, Allison Janney is ferocious, dirty and unpredictable as Tonya's horrible mother -- the prototypical Stage Mom who barks demeaning insults in between drags of her ever-present cigarette. She's countered by Margot Robbie, who dons the wigs and fakes the accents but is never "not pretty enough" to truly wear the anti-establishment hurt and anger that came with being the ostracized Tonya Harding. However, either Robbie learned how to perform all of Harding's skating routines, or Gillespie solved how to fake them expertly, because the routines in I, Tonya are amazing.
Still, this low-class trash comedy lands numerous, winning roundhouse punches as it wades through the gutter to relive a scandalous chapter in U.S. Olympic (drunk) history. If I can describe I, Tonya by borrowing one image from the film's runtime, it would be the shot of Tonya stubbing out a cigarette with the blade of her skate, seconds before she steps on the ice to perform. Kudos to Gillespie and his entire cast, who fly so close to the blazing sun of the Christopher Guest universe that I half expected to see Harry Shearer playing a judge at one of Tonya's competitions. A high compliment, indeed.
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