’90s figure skating bad girl Tonya Harding’s story is brought to light in this uproariously funny black comedy
There are several ways to tell the tale of Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater turned tabloid punchline. “I, Tonya” chooses the most interesting route, turning Harding’s story into a frank, uproariously funny dark comedy about dashed dreams, bumbling criminals and a little girl lost in the center of a whirlwind.
There’s more than a whiff of the Coen Brothers in this telling from director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), who takes a docu-drama approach to the Harding story, weaving in-character interviews with the key figures into the narrative. Margot Robbie is dynamite as Harding, the Oregon outsider who didn’t play by figure skating’s prim and proper rules, and was nobody’s princess. She was just as comfortable in a flannel shirt shooting a shotgun as she was in a pair of figure skates.
She was pushed onto the ice by her domineering mother, played by a wicked Allison Janney in an Oscar-worthy turn. Janney plays LaVona Golden without a hint of sympathy, chainsmoking and physically abusing her daughter, pushing her to greatness in the short run while paving the path that would eventually lead Harding to infamy.
Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s goon of a boyfriend whose name would go on to become a verb, as Steven Rogers’ crackling script wittily points out. Gillooly is brutal, quicker to punch out Harding than engage with her in a conversation, yet Stan plays him as a quiet, meager nerd in a sweater. Their passion runs hot, because neither of them know any better, or how to break the poisonous cycle of abuse.
These factors — Harding’s redneck upbringing, her mother’s relentlessness, Gillooly’s, well, Gilloolyness — swirls and forms a sort of inevitability that leads to the incident we know Harding for, the clubbing of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Cobo Arena in Detroit. The attack was masterminded — and we use the term loosely — by Harding’s “bodyguard,” a boob named Shawn Eckhardt (Grand Rapids’ Paul Walter Hauser), who hired a couple of even bigger bozos to carry out the attack. Gillespie and Rogers don’t linger on the attack itself for long, but they’re smart enough to acknowledge the incident is the reason the story is being told. (Quick aside: It doesn’t take an eagle eye to note the tree-lined exterior of the arena clearly isn’t the real Cobo.)
As a “Hard Copy” producer, Bobby Cannavale adds humorous commentary to the proceedings and helps provide context; Harding happened right before O.J. Simpson would send the world of celebrity scandal into hyperdrive. “I, Tonya” pops visually — the skating sequences are delivered with gusto — and its classic rock soundtrack gives it a “Boogie Nights”-like energy. If it begins to drag as it nears the finish line, Harding’s story ran out of fuel too, as we collectively cast her aside when we were all done with her. That is just another sad aspect to her story. “I, Tonya” turns her tragedy into triumph.
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 121 minutes