Movie Review: I, Tonya
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers (screenplay)
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
by Jason Koenigsberg
Ever see Goodfellas (1990)? Of course you have. If you have not then stop reading this and go watch it right now, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. Well Craig Gillespie, the director behind some very forgettable films such as Mr. Woodcock (2007) and The Finest Hours (2016) teamed up with screenwriter Steven Rogers (not Captain America, some other Steve Rogers) who has penned even more forgettable films like Hope Floats (1998) and P.S. I Love You (2007) to remake Goodfellas only instead of being about the mafia, it’s about the biggest figure skating scandal of all time. I, Tonya tells the story of the life and times of Tonya Harding and everything leading up to the infamous incident involving her fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan having her knee bashed in.
This movie copies the exact formula of Martin Scorsese’s crime drama from starting out with its main character at a young age entering the world of figure skating, it follows her rise and eventual tragic downfall, complete with classic rock songs accompanying every scene, voice over narration throughout, characters breaking the fourth wall and even a scenery chewing villain that dominates the screen every time they appear. Any film school brat who has seen Goodfellas enough times could have directed this movie.
I, Tonya opens up with a straight shot on Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) smoking a cigarette and cuts to interviews with her, her ex-husband (Sebastian Stan) and her mother (Allison Janney) that are recounting their memories in this pseudo interview format. As much as this film is trying to emulate Goodfellas it is also trying to be a movie version of the 90’s infotainment staple Hard Copy, which is actually appropriate considering the story.
The weakest element of I, Tonya is the screenplay with dialogue that feels so unnatural. In the first few minutes the characters immediately compare Tonya Harding’s saga to America. The script sets certain characters up to be highlights of their scenes with zero subtly which takes away from the realism that I, Tonya is trying to achieve. It ends up being too self aware for its own good, trying hard to be ironic, but the dialogue ends up making the movie seem pathetic.
By far the best aspect of I, Tonya are the performances. Margot Robbie once again delivers a knockout performance shedding her authentic Australian dialect convincingly playing a white trash American girl from Oregon. She almost eclipses her performance as a Staten Island native in her breakout role from Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Allison Janney is likely to earn a lot of attention for her part as the scene stealing mother from hell. She is one of the best actresses working today and really nails her part as a foul mouthed malcontent. Her character was written to purposefully have memorable lines and as talented as Ms. Janney is, many actresses could have done about as well. This part was meant to be vile and it would be hard for any actress to screw it up. Some of the most clever moments from I, Tonya involve her mother berating her daughter in some way.
This movie attempts to make Tonya Harding a sympathetic figure and somewhat succeeds. What it fails to do is capture how at one point in time she was easiest person to hate in America. It does not capture the media frenzy of the Nancy Kerrigan knee bashing incident. This was huge news. All of America started to care about figure skating and followed these women. They briefly mention some of the other figure skaters Harding and Kerrigan competed with such as Katarina Witt, Surya Bonaly, and Oksana Baiul. These were big names at one point and figure skating was dominating the TV ratings in the early 90’s thanks to this scandal. It touches on the media circus but does not nearly capture how much this was part of the American consciousness. Until the O.J. Simpson incident which they skillfully insert on a tv in the background of one scene, Tonya Harding was the most infamous and hate-able person in the nation. Even when the O.J. situation was happening because of the racial implications involved in the trial, he had his defenders and groups that supported him. Tonya Harding never had any of that, she was quite possibly the easiest punching bag the American public had throughout the 1990’s.
I, Tonya does a decent job at establishing her as a hated figure, it just did not go all the way with it and instead focused on the family dynamics between her, her ex-husband and her loathsome mother. On can only watch domestic disputes no matter how cleverly staged before it becomes tiresome. The performances almost make up for the scripts shortcomings but in the end it falls short of what it set out to achieve. It failed to truly show how much Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and all of these people involved were once a part of our lives.
I, Tonya does have a great soundtrack that would make for a terrific playlist. One of the best music moments came when they showed Ms. Harding skate to ZZ Top’s ‘Sleeping Bag’. This definitely showed how her taste in music was not what most judges had in mind and it is one of my favorite ZZ Top songs.