I, TONYA (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)
Released:  December 8, 2017 limited; January 12, 2018 wide
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson

Second-hand Scorsese by way of David O. Russell Oscar grabs (American Hustle, Joy), I, Tonya is just like its subject: desperate for respect.

This dark comedy about Tonya Harding, the most notorious Olympic skater of all time, is a sympathetic look at the white trash athlete connected to the knee-cap assault of figure skating princess Nancy Kerrigan.

It’s a wild ride that’s entertaining on its own terms, but boy there’s a lot to nitpick. With an apologetic bias toward Harding amped up by a Goodfellas-wannabe tone (that’s trying way too hard), it’s difficult to take seriously.

Director Craig Gillespie cuts and assembles this manic biopic like a feature-length trailer, as if constantly trying to sell the movie to viewers who’ve already bought a ticket.

It never slows down while throwing every hip cinematic technique at the screen, most egregiously a wall-to-wall retro soundtrack of songs (like Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) that mostly pre-date the 1990s setting by twenty years.

There’s a lot of skill on display but no artistry.

Sourcing (and re-creating) real interviews from Harding and other key players in this bizarre scandal, I, Tonya tracks Harding’s rise and fall as a skater who was doing unprecedented firsts on the ice before being forced off it in shame. But here, the villain becomes the victim.

From her childhood years of verbal abuse (and otherwise) at the hands of her chain-smoking mother LaVona, to the events that led to the Kerrigan attack, I, Tonya revels in the liberties it takes, at times even asking if we, the audience, can tell the difference between what’s true and what’s exaggerated. If we can’t, well, that’s the point.

But in making that point, Gillespie’s approach is too clever by half. In effect, he undercuts the veracity he’s striving for, caricaturizing events rather than magnifying them. The film becomes its own unreliable narrator while still wanting us to take its side.

Thick with quirk and knee-deep in redneck, I, Tonya wallows in its excesses (both stylistic and vulgar), right down to the self-commentary that breaks the fourth wall. Dialing back considerably on these indulgent impulses could have earned the dimensions Gillespie was hoping to explore, perhaps even achieving something genuine.

Instead, we’re left with an unintentional tone of condescension. Margot Robbie is all-in as Tonya, and Allison Janney is having an absolute blast as the profanely caustic mother, but they’re way too broad to be convincing.

The entire ensemble sinks their teeth into these rural rubes, at times with lampooning calculation. In the attempt to redeem Harding’s reputation by tarnishing everyone around her, I, Tonya falls into self-parody.

To the extent that news coverage in the 90s was unfair to Harding, I, Tonya is an implausible revision to the other extreme. It has the gall to play to our voyeuristic inclinations for two hours, only to end by allowing Harding to judge us for having them.

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