- Margot Robbie does a great job as Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in “I,Tonya.”
- The movie is otherwise cruel to its real-life subject.
- Harding was abused by her mother and husband, never got an education, and had her life ruined by the men around her.
- The movie makes fun of all that.
There are lots of things that can go wrong when making a movie about a true story.
Some movies botch the casting. Some get key facts wrong. Most of them simplify reality’s shades of grey to cinema’s black-and-white.
“I, Tonya” messes up in a way I’ve never seen before: It condescends to the people it’s about.
The movie is about the Tonya Harding incident. It’s a convoluted true story, but it basically goes like this: Harding was figure skating rivals with Nancy Kerrigan in the 1990s. In the 1992 Winter Olympics, she got 4th place to Kerrigan’s bronze medal.
By a stroke of luck, the Olympic Committee added a Winter Olympics session in 1994 instead of waiting another four years, allowing Harding to compete again. Her ex-husband and bodyguard hired someone to break Kerrigan’s right leg so she wouldn’t qualify that year. Harding pleaded guilty to trying to hinder the prosecution against her ex-husband and bodyguard and was banned for life from the United States Figure Skating Association. Tabloids were obsessed with the story.
The movie also goes through Harding’s early years. Harding grew up in an abusive, rough situation in a poor town outside Portland, Oregon. Her parents are separated, her father is mostly absent, and her mother is abusive. There are rich, absurdist details, like Harding’s father designing a fur coat made out of small animals he hunted because he can’t afford to buy one, and her mother’s lively pet parrot. There are standout performances from Margot Robbie, who plays the adult Tonya Harding, Mckenna Grace, who plays the younger version of her, and Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s mother.
It’s clear that the details, as director Craig Gillepsie and screenwriter Steven Rogers presents them, are tragic. Harding grew up in poverty and was a high school dropout, focusing all of her energies on skating. Her husband, Jeff Gilooly (played by Sebastian Stan), beat her, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser), was a narcissist and an idiot. They made a colossally stupid decision, put Harding in a terrible position, and ruined her life.
But Gillepsie plays it all as a dark screwball comedy. He punches down, laughing at her misfortune and the stupidity of everyone involved.
It doesn’t feel right. Yes, it’s funny in “Burn After Reading” when Brad Pitt’s character sneaks into someone’s home because he’s in the middle of a Russian spy movie and then ends up dead. It’s not funny when Tonya Harding is a real-life person — an abuse victim who didn’t get a proper education and loses her career because the men around her are failures.
One of Gillepsie’s messages is that being famous is tantamount to being abused by the media, similar to her real-life experience with abuse. In one of her fourth-wall-breaking monologues, Robbie, as Harding, holds the movie’s audience complicit. Do you feel bad for laughing, she asks, now having seen everything I suffered through? I didn’t find much of the movie funny, but it sounds like Gillepsie did.
It’s a cheap trick. Gillepsie holds the movie’s audience accountable for finding the situation funny, not himself. He gives the movie a veneer of documentary, with its sit-down interviews, pretending that his own version of events is straightforward and without interpretation.
None of it works. It just feels like he’s snickering behind the camera.
Gillepsie can do and has done better. I really liked “Lars and the Real Girl,” his 2007 dark comedy where Ryan Gosling is in a romantic relationship with a sex doll. It managed a careful balance between deep empathy for a person in a depressing situation while still providing the occasional laugh. With “I, Tonya,” about an actual person, Gillepsie thinks he’s being edgier. He’s just mean.
After being banned from figure skating and stripped of her awards, Harding got a career in boxing, where she was beaten up every day. “America,” Robbie says, speaking the words of Rogers’s script, “loves someone to hate.” If Gillepsie really feels that way, I feel bad for him.
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