I mentioned it yesterday in my review of The Post, but I don’t really do biopics in theaters, with both these films chosen largely because they are likely Oscar contenders. Not the best reason to check out a film I admit, but at this point, it feels like half the films of any quality being released this time of year are biopics and the like regardless. While I was alive during the attack on Nancy Kerrigan and the ensuing media circus and am plenty familiar with the incident, I was hardly old enough to really appreciate it (three-year-olds are notoriously and embarrassingly out of touch with the news). It leaves me in a similar state to where I was pre-American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, familiar and tired enough of the story to have little interest in it, but having been denied the overexposure that would have clued me into every detail of it whether I wanted to or not. Not coincidentally, both stories took place in 1994 (the film even explicitly mentions this story leading into the focus on O.J.), part of a short period in American history where public trials and fascination in controversy could play out on the 24-hour news networks over a span of months or longer before the Internet mostly supplanted them and shortened the life cycle of such “news”.
And sure enough, I, Tonya makes it clear that the real villain in all this is the news with Bobby Cannavale’s TV producer being the slimiest of all the characters despite the story being filled with idiots and abusers. Granted he never actually shows up in the plot, but you can feel the way the story uses him to represent this part of the story. His character is part of the framing device where his character, as well Tonya and all the principle players are interviewed (as played by the actors) as reflecting on and dictating the plot which is depicted in more traditional dramatic scenes. I’m really of two minds on this. While I appreciate the way the film tried to be different than the usual biopic and the series of real life interviews are what is actually behind the story, the actual success of them is iffy. Combined with plenty of scenes of certain characters going ahead and breaking the 4th wall, it’s clear they are trying to draw humor out of the situation, but as I criticized when talking about The Post, it’s not funny when the movie tries to be in on the joke.
Tonya’s story itself is a story of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse, first by her mother and later by her husband and mother. It’s a real thin line that the movie walks in trying to portray these events as crucial in shaping her, but still making it clear that she’s still to blame for being the rude and obnoxious person who refuses to accept any blame she is. And she is sympathetic if hardly likable which is a credit to Margot Robbie’s performance. I was skeptical of the acclaim around her role heading in because I’ve been here before only to be consistently underwhelmed by her. Her performance here however is great, able to wring out the humor when it could feel forced, the sympathy of an abuse victim, and the weird duality of the way Harding can almost simultaneously feel unworthy of the hate and yet completely understandable as to why so many don’t like her.
The story takes us from a three year old Tonya up to and through the main reason we care about her story (a fact that the film can’t help but repeatedly point out) and once the plot against Nancy Kerrigan comes up, the film almost changes from interesting if depressingly repetitive (the cycle of abuse is not exactly a fun thing to watch play out over and over again) to a Coen Brothers film filled with a cast of idiots (each dumber than the last) making the worst possible move in each successive situation and making their capture inevitable and easy. There’s even a character (played by Paul Walter Hauser in a sort of 90’s era Ethan Suplee type performance) who massively and “hilariously” (the joke gets old from repetition even if it is realistic) overstates his qualifications to the belief of no one. I say almost because the interview segments really drag the film down here and grind the momentum to a halt just when it should be getting interesting (with Cannavale’s producer the most egregious offender).
There’s a lot of talk about how each person’s stories radically diverge (mostly just involving denial of certain scenes of abuse) and yet the film never seems to take any side but Tonya’s and is quick to portray any alternate opinions as clear lies. This may be true, but it calls the entire point of the documentary-esque framing into doubt and makes the films self-satisfied attempts to be unique instead infuriating. The stories don’t even seem all that different aside from Hauser’s deluded and essentially Confessions of a Dangerous Mind world that he’s living in.
If you’re wondering why I’ve barely mentioned Kerrigan thus far, it’s because she is basically a nonentity in the film. A periphery character who gets one very obvious word of dialogue. As for the rest of the cast, Allison Janney plays Mama Harding as coldly abusive and it’s almost impressive in the way the film never even tries to pretend she cares about her daughter. I mean that sincerely especially after viewing Molly’s Game and Janney is unsurprisingly very good. Julianne Nicholson portrays her coach as another Julianne Nicholson character and she never really gets any depth. Sebastian Stan rounds out the cast as Harding’s first husband and while Stan is fine in the role, the film continually undercuts any attempt to make him interesting, a task not helped by the fact that by the end he’s essentially just a personality-free take on a Fargo character.
I, Tonya will go down as a weird duck. I went in with low expectations and yet it simultaneously exceeded them and disappointed me. Every time I would be impressed by the film’s take on Harding, the complaints would start bubbling up in my head. Every time I’d find something clever in the film’s format which probably couldn’t have been done in a traditional biopic, the film butts in on an interesting scene that I wish they had given space to. Every amusing bit of character or observation (the latter almost entirely by Harding) is either repeated until it loses impact (Hauser’s claims, the bird pecking at Mama Harding) or followed by one which has me muttering “how cute”. Plenty of biopics settle for “fine” by being unambitious and relying on the work of talented actors and well-worn if effective plot beats and yet here is a film which shoots higher and takes risks and yet lands on “fine” all the same. I guess that’s just what I should learn to expect from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night).
Some stray thoughts about the sports cinematography. The ice skating is filmed with long takes, generally smooth ones which highlight Robbie’s well done facial performance at that which is exactly the right approach and felt like it should be something I’m really into. And yet, for some reason, it just never clicked with me. It’s hard to put a finger on why though they didn’t completely work for me. The moments where it is clear it is being shot handheld may play into it, but they aren’t too noticeable and the fact that it is figure skating (a sport which even when I was more into sports was always one I found uninteresting and not just because the judging seemed idiotic, a sentiment Harding would agree with) doesn’t help, but just chalk this up to a gut feeling.