I, Tonya: Comedy in mild tragedy

Why make a shiny, glimmer-y sports redemption film about Olympic silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan when the source material is so much richer with the comedically tragic tale I’ve disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding?

Born from a pair of highly contradictory interviews, director Craig Gillespie’s outlandish tale from the wrong side of the tracks who just wants to figure skate has unsurprisingly become one of the year’s most side-splitting comedies.

“I, Tonya” follows the roller coaster life of an elite sport’s most blue-collar athlete whose rise to fame in the early 90s became forever marred by an attack on her figure skating rival that Harding may or may not have been complicit in planning.

“I, Tonya” packs a lot of punch within its two-hour running time even offers those familiar with the events new, personal insight into the hows and whys.

The irreverent, deeply personal glimpse into Harding’s world begins and ends with a highly stylized performance from Golden Globe nominee Margot Robbie. Completely unfamiliar with Harding prior to her involvement in the project, Robbie built her version of the controversial figure skater from scratch walked into the mindset and tone for her performance well before ever meeting with Harding.

Whether her portrayal of Harding is totally accurate matters very little over the course of the film. Robbie’s deeply brash, antagonistic turn may come to completely redefine public perception of Harding, deserved or not.

Her performance is heavily influenced by the outstanding work of Golden Globe winner Allison Janney, who verbally and physically brutalizes her way through the script as Harding’s no-holds-barred mother LaVona.

With the tact of a wrecking ball, Janney eagerly devours each scene with an indignant self-righteousness that implies her cruel-hearted parenting style to be the best way to rear a champion.
Janney’s LaVona perfectly sums up the “she gets it from her mother” notion the film intends. Little inflections in LaVona’s speech and tone work their way into Robbie’s performance as the two dynamic actresses syncopate their work.

While Sebastian Stan ably portrays Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, the best secondary performance of “I, Tonya” comes from Paul Walter Hauser as the captivatingly confident, yet tone deaf more on bodyguard Shawn. Acting unintentionally dumb on screen can prove to be quite the formidable challenge, yet Hauser find the correct comedic timing and affectation to make the absurd seem authentic and genuine to the character.

“I, Tonya” is blessed with an incredible, richly constructed script from Steven Rogers, which balances a whole host of unreliable narrators in an attempt to explain and give context to the rise and fall of Harding. Based on extensive interviews Rogers conducted with both Harding and Gillooly, “I, Tonya” fondly evokes the hysterical chaos of “Goodfellas” while maintaining a casual earnestness that could come across as a way to seek redemption for Harding’s shortcomings.

Gillespie keeps the action flowing at a constant, rapid fire pace that rarely gives the audience time to breathe. This allows viewers to remain engaged and connected to the story during the film’s more outlandish, unbelievable moments and maintain some semblance of authentic plausibility.

It’s never quite clear in “I, Tonya” who (if anyone) is actually telling the truth, but Rogers and Gillespie perfectly blur the lines between truth and fiction that every character feels reliable in specific moments.

The film’s leading ladies, Robbie and Janney, will be among the frontrunners to take home a golden statuette in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories respectively. Beyond that, the Oscar hopes for “I, Tonya” become decidedly murkier as the dark comedy could be on the outside of crowded races for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

A tragic laugh riot from start to finish, “I, Tonya” builds off a strong script with a pair of outstanding performances to deliver one of 2017’s most engaging, exciting films.

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