It wouldn’t be all that difficult for a talented director and a sharp screenwriter to make a breezy and darkly funny period-piece sports comedy about 1990s ice skater Tonya Harding, and the rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan that resulted in that famous attack on Ms. Kerrigan — and Harding becoming one of the most hated individuals on the planet.
That same true story could also be the basis for a faux-documentary approach, with actors portraying Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly in present day, giving interviews and presenting vastly different accounts of what transpired some 25 years ago.
And given the sad and troubling details of Harding’s life story, from a childhood scarred by abandonment and neglect and a steady diet of verbal abuse through a marriage filled with violence (which didn’t stop even after the divorce), there’s certainly a serious character study that could be told.
To the great credit of director Craig Gillespie, screenwriter Steven Rogers and a cast led by Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney, “I, Tonya” is all of those movies wrapped into one. They take on a tricky and bold balancing act — and they pull it off on every level.
Margot Robbie can be effective in the right role (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Focus”) but too attention-glomming in other parts (“Suicide Squad”). With “I, Tonya,” Robbie is handed a plum role, filled with superficial, actor-friendly trappings (the physicality of the skating, the smoking, the cursing, the makeup, the hair) and of course a fascinating and complex personality and character arc — and she gives the best performance of her career.
Robbie’s Harding is crass, stubborn, difficult and obnoxious. She’s also a world-class athlete capable of show-stopping magnificence on the ice; a broken human being who makes bad choices but is undeniably also a victim, and at times wickedly funny, vulnerable and even sympathetic.
Director Gillespie frames “I, Tonya” with a series of snippets from docu-style interviews with Harding and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, very good) in the present day, with Tonya still defiant and proclaiming her innocence in the Kerrigan attack, and Gillooly gamely (and lamely) trying to justify his behavior.
From these interviews, we flash back to Tonya’s childhood in Oregon (Mckenna Grace from “Gifted” is wonderful as the young Tonya); her initially sweet but quickly volatile relationship with Jeff, and Tonya’s emergence as a potential world champion, even though her look and style and personality are anathema to the judges and the old-school ice skating community.
At times we see the same incident, first through Tonya’s recollections and then Jeff’s. To say their memories are wildly conflicting is an understatement.
In addition to Robbie’s first-rate work, “I, Tonya” is filled with memorable supporting performances.
As Tonya’s foul-mouthed, cold-hearted mother, LaVona, Allison Janney delivers the kind of performance that invites (and deserves) best supporting actress talk.
Paul Walter Hauser is a scene-stealing comedic force as Shawn Eckhardt, the burly, sad-sack, delusional “bodyguard” to Tonya who fancied himself as some sort of internationally connected black ops expert, even though he lived with his parents and his stories were laughably easy to fact-check and debunk. Eckhardt’s efforts to mastermind the attack on Kerrigan are so laughable we’d accuse the screenwriters of overreaching, were it not for the fact they’re pretty much sticking to the events as they happened.
We get another terrific supporting turn from Bobby Cannavale as the slick and slimy “Hard Copy” producer who explains how Tonya’s story was perfect for the nascent Tabloid TV era and confirmed there was a voracious appetite for nonstop coverage of celebrity scandal sagas. (The attack on Kerrigan took place on Jan. 6, 1994 — just six months before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.)
“I, Tonya” is kitschy and smart and funny and insightful, and sometimes sobering. It reminds us that one of the many sad things about Tonya Harding’s life story is Harding never realized she didn’t have to be the villain, the late-night punch-line, the object of so much derision and mockery.
She could have been a real-life, female “Rocky” on ice. She could have been the People’s Champion.
Female skating legends were beautiful athletes who projected an almost regal air, from the reign of the glamorous Sonja Henie through Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Katarina Witt, et al. From demeanor to costume to makeup to choice of music to knowing how much to play to the crowd and the judges, there was a certain way of doing things.
And then along comes Tonya Harding, clomping onto the ice in clownish makeup and garish costumes hand-sewn by her mother, attacking her routine to the sounds of ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” — and knocking the wind of out the skating world by becoming the first woman to nail a triple axel.
We just might have loved Tonya if the rogue’s gallery of abusers, miscreants, sycophants and clowns surrounding her had given her the least bit of encouragement to consider the possibility she was actually something quite special.
Neon presents a film directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers. Rated R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity). Running time: 119 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.