The procession of true-crime dramatizations of the most notorious crimes of the 1990s, which started with last year’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson miniseries, continues with I, Tonya. This rollicking, mockumentary-style treatment of the life of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding opened the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival Thursday night.
Harding's story, about the time her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly conspired to attack her rival Nancy Kerrigan with a baton, has been much told. It was on every newscast in the world in 1994, and in a pair of TV documentaries (one by NBC, another by ESPN) that aired in 2014. But director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by Steven Rogers, finds a novel way to tell it again.
The film follows Tonya’s life, from her upbringing and early training through her marriage to abusive lout Gillooly and into the assault and its aftermath, which led to Harding’s conviction on minor charges and banishment from figure skating. Gillespie to his credit, successfully balances the tone of this bizarre story, which is horrifying in some respects and darkly hilarious in others.
A shot of Harding (Margot Robbie) putting out a cigarette with her ice skate is a pretty strong shorthand for what the film is actually about. Harding, from an underprivileged background in the Pacific Northwest and the daughter of an alcoholic, chain-smoking, hateful single mom (Allison Janney), was wildly out of place in the prim, image-obsessed world of high-level figure skating, the only major sport that gives scores for artistic expression. Harding’s talent and perseverance got her far, and she suffered greatly at the hands of many people in her life, but the film shows she was, in many ways, her own worst enemy.
At its best, I, Tonya resembles a Coen Brothers movie, with a group of bumbling idiots getting in way over their heads while executing a criminal conspiracy. The Walter Sobchak of the crew is Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Gillooly’s corpulent sidekick and a classic American stereotype. An unaccomplished layabout who literally lived in his parents’ basement, Eckardt executed the conspiracy for no other reason than to indulge his delusions of grandeur and “change the course of history.” At one point Eckhardt refers to himself, ludicrously, as an expert on international terrorism.
Robbie, significantly de-glammed, gives a superlative performance as Harding, successfully nailing a tricky character who’s highly flawed but still sympathetic. But the best performance belongs to Allison Janney, playing a truly monstrous mother character. Sebastian Stan is fine and disappears into the role of Gillooly, but I’m still wondering why the filmmakers didn’t cast Scoot McNairy, who, when he wears a mustache, is practically a ringer.
The Australian Gillespie is no one’s idea of a prestige filmmaker. He made 2007’s weirdo Ryan Gosling drama Lars and the Real Girl, 2011’s Fright Night, and the abysmal 2014 Disney sports film Million Dollar Arm, which all but killed Jon Hamm’s movie-leading-man career the first time out. But this is Gillespie’s best work by far. Its pacing is brisk and he even finds inventive ways to film the skating scenes (accomplished with body doubles).
However, the film does have one nearly fatal flaw: an egregious amount of pop-music needle drops, many of which are painfully on the nose, and most of which are overused standards not even period-appropriate to the film’s events. It’s a huge distraction, and directors who aren’t named Martin Scorsese or Robert Zemeckis should stop overusing this particular trick.
I, Tonya does a great job of placing its story in its cultural moment, most exemplified in a shot of a news van leaving Gillooly’s house just as the O.J. Simpson drama gets under way. For some reason it includes a David Letterman top 10 list, but not the famous “Top Ten Ways to Mispronounce Jeff Gillooly” (including Jeff Goldblum, Boutros-Boutros Gillooly, and Jeff Guilty).
Even so, I, Tonya is a must for either those obsessed with ‘90s scandals or those too young to remember them. It’s a worthy opener for this year’s festival.
What, When, Where
I, Tonya. Screenplay by Steven Rogers, Craig Gillespie directed. The Philadelphia Film Festival continues through October 29, 2017. Full schedule here. Opens in theaters December 8, 2017.