The opening titles of I, Tonya—a dark comedy about the life, times, and scandal of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)—inform us that it is based on the “irony free” testimony of those involved. It’s both a joke and a boast, and “irony” quickly becomes the operative word; the landing that I, Tonya needs to stick is to convince us that there’s more to this biopic than the thick syrup of irony it ladles over every detail of its true story. There is an attempt, to be sure. But by the final act, the film has established itself as perhaps the most fraudulently entertaining film of 2017, a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too movie that tries to tap into the untold pathos of a tabloid celebrity while parading everyone as a comic freak show. It toggles back and forth between its modes so fast that it can give you whiplash—there’s no idea so serious that the movie can’t tactlessly undercut it almost immediately.
For those too young to remember the 90s, Tonya Harding was an Olympic figure skater who was implicated in the maiming of Nancy Kerrigan, one of her rivals. The facts of the case are stranger than fiction, and the rumors worse. As for the film’s telling, it certainly can’t be faulted for acting or technical skills. Allison Janney (as Tonya’s maniacal, chain-smoking mother) will probably get an Oscar nod on the basis of profanity alone, while the camerawork and editing are forceful and exhilarating, particularly during any scene set on the ice rink. What it lacks is a coherent, consistent perspective on its subjects. More than one reviewer has favorably brought up Martin Scorsese, which is a sign of how superficial critics can be: the movie pulls the tracking shots, needle-drops, and broad strokes from Scorsese films without realizing just how much Scorsese’s style and themes worked together. (As excessive as they are, Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are nothing if not subtly and expertly balanced between seduction and moral dismay).
It’s a shame, because I, Tonya is correct when it says at the beginning, with its characteristic lack of subtlety, that the story of Tonya Harding is a story of America and a story of the pressures put on women. There’s plenty of narrative material to back up both, and I can see why Margot Robbie, who is also credited as a producer, was drawn to the material: it’s a chance to play an unconventional heroine and give a swift kick in the balls to anyone who thinks she’s mere eye-candy. Her big scene at the end—in other words, the landing—deserves to be in a much better movie. The most honest moment may be when Bobby Cannavale, as a reporter for Hard Copy in one of the film’s mockumentary segments, says that mainstream news outlets have now become as trashy as the gutter journalism of the 90s. That, if nothing else, is the implicit moral of I, Tonya: I’m sick, you’re sick, they’re sick, we’re all sick, and we can all be manipulated by the media—now enjoy this crane shot and laugh and be moved. There’s no way on Earth that I, Tonya will bore you. But if you think about it enough to scratch just below its surface-level effectiveness, it doesn’t cleverly prove that point so much as it clumsily embodies it. Frankly, I’d advise not giving it the satisfaction.
I, Tonya is in select theaters now. Margot Robbie is wonderful in it, but people who forget it understand it best.