|Image courtesy of Neon.|
Gillespie's film treats the Tonya Harding story partially as a comedic exercise, but also as a white trash "Goodfellas," right down to the dolly shots and breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a scene. And it's oddly compelling, mostly due to the committed and sympathetic performance by Margot Robbie as Tonya, but also the group of clowns with whom she surrounds herself.
This includes her reprobate mother, LaVona (a lively Allison Janney), abusive idiot husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dopey wannabe man-of-mystery buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Bobby Cannavale gets a few laughs as a reporter for "Hard Copy" and he delivers one of the film's best lines in regards to the state of the media.
In many ways, Tonya's story plays as legitimately tragic. She's a backwoods beauty queen who happens to be able to skate circles around her competitors, but judges refuse to recognize her since she isn't dressed as well as the snotty children against whom she competes who are often decked out in attire chosen by their wealthy parents. It also doesn't help that she performs her routines - including the extremely difficult triple axel, which none of her competitors can pull off - to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag," much to the chagrin of the judges who sneer at her.
Tonya is also surrounded by abusive figures. Her mother frequently slaps her, kicks her off a chair, beats her with brushes and, in one instance, throws a knife at her daughter that sticks in her arm. Regarding the latter, LaVona deadpans, "every family has its ups and downs." Once she flees her mother's house, Tonya flies straight into the arms of Gillooly, an idiot good ol' boy who is quick to slap, punch and even point a gun at his wife.
There are a few wrong notes struck in the film. During one sequence, Tonya talks about her history of abusers and addresses the film's audience directly, saying that everyone watching the film is also complicit. This wouldn't ring quite as hollow if the entire film hadn't cracked jokes at the expense of the people in Harding's immediate circle, who are portrayed as rubes.
Don't get me wrong, many of those scenes are funny, especially the idiocy employed by Hauser's doofus sidekick to Gillooly and Janney's wildly inappropriate mother figure. But you can't exactly have your cake and eat it too. Also, the scenes that mimic "Goodfellas," especially one in which Gillooly begins speaking to the camera during a court scene, should have been left as a Martin Scorsese trademark.
But all in all, "I, Tonya" is a funny, engrossing and oddly moving account of a person who has been portrayed as a villain - and lumped unfairly with Amy Fisher as one of the 1990's femme fatales - but is more sympathetic than you might expect. According to Gillespie's film and the interviews conducted with Harding and Gillooly, the attack on Kerrigan was planned and carried out by Gillooly and several of his dimwit friends, and Harding, despite her image, played no part in the plot. Regardless of where you stand on the issue - assuming you stand anywhere at all - "I, Tonya" is a surprisingly compelling film.