“I, Tonya,” with its glib, flashy tone, wants to have it both ways: It wants us to sympathize with Harding, who unapologetically tells her story in I’m-over-it flashback, and to laugh at her — even as she endures physical abuse. 2.5 stars out of 4.
Let’s just get this out of the way immediately: Margot Robbie is much too tall to play Tonya Harding. Yes, I’m nitpicking, but on behalf of those of us who aren’t embarrassed to admit that we breathlessly followed every minute of the Great Harding/Kerrigan Knee-Whacking Drama Of 1994, it’s jarring to see, in Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” a Harding who’s at eye level with the other major players. I remember her being barely 5 feet tall, in a warmup suit that looked enormous on her, drowned by a sea of microphones, speaking in a surprisingly small voice. How could someone so tiny be at the center of something so big?
I had to watch “I, Tonya” twice; the first time to get all my memories out of the way (for the record, this movie’s reconstruction of Harding’s bedazzled competition outfits is impeccable), the second time to see how it worked as a movie. For those who are young, or who were busy doing something important in the winter of 1994, a brief recap: Harding, a working-class young woman from rural Oregon, overcame her troubled past to become one of the nation’s top-ranking skaters, but was frustrated when judges frequently preferred her more elegant competitors, such as Nancy Kerrigan. Just before the pre-Olympics national competition, Kerrigan was assaulted by a pair of clueless would-be hit men who, it turns out, were acting on the orders of Harding’s inadvisedly mustached husband, Jeff Gillooly. This launched a truly insane media storm, all focused on the same question: Was Tonya in on it?
Movie Review ★★½
‘I, Tonya,’ with Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale. Directed by Craig Gillespie, from a screenplay by Steven Rogers. 120 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity. Several theaters.
Based, by its own admission, on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” “I, Tonya” doesn’t definitively answer the question. (“There’s no such thing as truth,” says Tonya in the movie, looking back.) But it is, for much of its running time, undeniably entertaining. Robbie, though physically miscast, finds a flinty toughness as Harding; Allison Janney is terrifyingly snake-eyed as Harding’s horror of a mother; Sebastian Stan plays a doltish Gillooly; and Paul Walter Hauser seems to be having a blast as the mouth-breathing conspirator Shawn Eckhart, who thinks of himself as an “international counterterrorism expert.”
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But the film, with its glib, flashy tone, wants to have it both ways: It wants us to sympathize with Harding, who unapologetically tells her story in I’m-over-it flashback, and to laugh at her — even as she endures physical abuse. While it’s fun to snicker at the real-life idiocy of the conspiracy to injure Kerrigan — carried out, a tabloid journalist (Bobby Cannavale) tells us, by “two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs” — the laughter dies, or should die, as Harding gets thrown to the floor by Gillooly, or viciously slapped by her mother.
What stays with you, at the end of “I, Tonya,” is a haunting moment in Robbie’s performance. In close-up, putting on her garish competition makeup, she’s clearly overwhelmed by the circus that her life has become. Weary and sad and near tears, she suddenly smiles widely; practicing, perhaps, for the audience and judges waiting for her. I’ve seen warmer icicles.