“I, Tonya” announces up front that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory” interviews with the participants, yielding a darkly satiric comedy with the tenor of a Coen brothers movie. Elevated by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney’s shimmering performances, this entertaining account of those strange events earns the sort of high marks for creative interpretation that its protagonist complained eluded her.
That protagonist, of course, is Tonya Harding, the figure skater etched into the public consciousness by her association with one of the strangest modern scandals – namely, her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) participating in a plot to kneecap her principal rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to the 1994 Olympics.
The movie, however – directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), and drawn by screenwriter Steven Rogers in part from his interviews with Harding and Gillooly – goes well beyond “The Incident,” as its principals call it, to focus on Harding’s abusive, hardscrabble upbringing, segueing from life with her abusive mother LaVona (Janney) to her abusive boyfriend-then-husband Gillooly.
Featuring the characters in direct-to-camera interviews, a strong undercurrent to the film is that Harding’s downfall preceded several others of the tabloid-friendly 1990s, so much so that a “Hard Copy” reporter (played by Bobby Cannavale) is among the witnesses, wryly noting that the show was dismissed as trash by a media ecosystem that later mastered copying its sordid bag of tricks.
Janney pretty nearly steals the show as Tonya’s foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother, who constantly gripes about how she’s squandering her limited resources on skating lessons and coaching for a girl, she’s told, who “stands out because she looks like she chops wood every morning.”
Indeed, much of “I, Tonya” is defined by a class divide within the rarefied world of figure skating, where Harding – the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition – must constantly gripe about her unfair treatment compared to the prim, perfectly coiffed rivals with whom she competes.
It’s Gillooly, a semi-pathetic character, who gets the idea of trying to knock Kerrigan off her game, a plot he hands over to his doughy pal Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser, also hilarious), who enlists a band of equally inept misfits who thoroughly botch the whole scheme.
For her part, Robbie struggles a bit with Harding in the very early going – it’s hard to buy her as a 15 year old, even with the braces – and the sleight of hand used to realize the skating sequences is visually distracting in places. Once the story moves into the meat of the action, though – from Tonya moving in with Jeff to the insanity that follows – she paints a layered and unexpectedly sympathetic portrait as the most seemingly trustworthy of the film’s alternating narrators. (The song soundtrack also does an extremely effective job of capturing the time and setting the mood.)
“I, Tonya” is receiving a limited run for Oscar-qualifying purposes, and its key performances surely merit consideration. Because even with a few wobbles, Gillespie has choreographed a winning account that breathes life into Harding’s tale after 20-some-odd years on ice.
“I, Tonya” premieres December 8 in New York and Los Angeles and widely on January 19.