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TIFF 2017 Review: ‘I, Tonya’ Prioritizes Crude Humor Over Sincerity

This mean-spirited biopic provides cheap laughs at the expense of its subjects.
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2017

This mean-spirited biopic provides cheap laughs at the expense of its subjects.

“Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” The opening title card of Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya perfectly sums up the tone of the story that is about to unfold. The film tackles the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan fiasco through the mode of dark comedy, which seems to be the simplest way to depict the crass ordeals at play. Gillespie utilizes various formats – including TV broadcasts, faux 35mm shot interviews, highly digitalized skating sequences, and more – to keep his film in a constant state of visual evolution. These formats shift so quickly between one another that it becomes a challenge to really analyze them beyond the messy product that the whole thing sums up to.

It is the impressive ensemble that allows Gillespie to seemingly get away with the whole thing. Margot Robbie undergoes the physical transformation Oscar voters love to play the lead role of Tonya Harding. Forced into figure skating by her abusive, tough-loving mother (Allison Janney), Harding quickly becomes one of the best performers on the ice. By the time the 1992 Winter Olympics come around, Tonya is twenty-one-years-old and trapped in an abusive marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Tonya places fourth, but two years later is given a second chance to compete. Enter Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), Harding’s strongest competitor and judge favorite. With Harding facing her greatest challenge yet, Gillooly and best friend/bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) set up an indescribably moronic plan in hopes of ensuring her victory.

Robbie is obviously not doing her own skating; instead, her head is poorly rendered onto a figure skater’s body. The performance is one that will gain attention for the way Robbie delivers the biting lines of dialogue written by Steven Rogers. There isn’t an ounce of nuance in the performance – or any of the film’s performances for that matter. Nevertheless, Robbie goes full movie star, braying her way through arguments and interviews to ravish up what is a surprisingly endearing charm factor. The performance that is going to have pundits talking is that of Allison Janney as Harding’s mother LaVona. The role requires the usually charming Janney to show off her meanest side, which is pretty delightful to endure when she is not shown beating her daughter. The film first reveals Janney in its mockumentary interview format. Donning a bowl cut wig, Janney sits on a couch wearing a fur coat, unnecessarily large glasses, an oxygen tube in her nose, and a pet bird on her shoulder that routinely nibbles on her earlobes. The whole thing is pretty grotesque and caricature-like in a sort of Wes Anderson-y manner. The performance is excessively crude, yet somewhat delicious.

Craig Gillespie is what many would describe as a “journeyman” director. He does not have a particular style, taking on diverse projects and directing them competently while mostly sticking to the page. His filmography includes Mr. Woodcock, Million Dollar Arm, and The Finest Hours. All of these films are varying genre and tone, with an unintelligible trademark by their director. It is the lack of direction that leaves I, Tonya feeling more like a greatest hits collection than a well-executed biopic. The tone is carried by a seemingly continuous stream of rock hits from the 80s and 90s that evoke an unsubtle injection of Scorsese. Rather than move the film along, the soundtrack is distracting and eventually leads to unintentional self-parody. While Scorsese is a fair influence for any filmmaker to have, I, Tonya ends up feeling more like an installment of Ryan Murphy’s series Feud than any of Marty’s masterpieces.

For most of its running time I, Tonya is actually rapturous fun. It has a vibrancy that is easy to get caught up in. The fun comes in a point-and-laugh fashion, one that is entirely surface level. There are no characters here, but instead, a bunch of talented actors what seems like a two-hour long SNL skit. Perhaps most unfortunate is that this film is extremely mean-spirited. I can’t think of a single person depicted in the film – with the exception of Nancy Kerrigan, perhaps – who would not feel personally victimized by the way they are portrayed. The final product is a piece of easy entertainment, which rides of cheap jabs instead of intelligent insight.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.