I, Tonya (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Jan/180

I, Tonya (2017)

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Tonya Harding - misunderstood and unlikely heroine of figure skating, or psychopathic abuser with delusions of grandeur?  The wildly contradictory stories don't paint a consistent image, but that won't stop this film from trying.  Craig Gillespie directs I, Tonya, with the screenplay written by Steven Rogers, and stars Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastian Stan.

I don't like I, Tonya, but I do respect that director Craig Gillespie decides on a trashy aesthetic early on and proceeds with no pretensions of taste.  This is the sort of film that is self-aware enough to start in tight pseudo documentary frames taking up barely half the screen, and when the delusional loser Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) talks about his role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) the camera cuts to a separate television playing Shawn's interview.  Shawn is such a dangerous loser that he can't be allowed to share the same interview frame as Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Tonya's mother LaVona (Allison Janney).  He's isolated to his own little world in a manner suitable to his delusions and Hauser smacks the air at the end of each sentence like he's tasting an imaginary buffet of his own lies.

Where I, Tonya goes from here is just as trashy as the opening interviews and lands on a presentation of lower-class America I can't endorse.  The big problem with I, Tonya is that Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers aren't interested in the why behind Tonya so much as the setting.  They take every opportunity to saddle Tonya with symbols of white trash while breaking the fourth wall often enough that it becomes a cruel joke.

Allison Janney could have gone full Mommie Dearest with her performance but stops at fierce, if wounding, pride.

This is best illustrated by Tonya's on-again/off-again relationship with Jeff (Sebastian Stan.)  He's abusive, and Tonya speaks directly to the audience while he's hitting her or in the middle of sex.  Who this is designed to entertain is hard to say, as there's too much fourth-wall breaking to keep the trashy fantasy going and having Tonya narrate mid-coitus gives her creative agency over her own abuse.  The only times this works are when Tonya is afforded more control over the framing of her relationship, like when she cocks a shotgun while insisting to the audience that she never shot at Jeff.  The rest of the time it's just mean, like when Jeff surprises Tonya with a trail of pink flowers that clash with the dirty carpet and linoleum of their apartment.  Even when things are going well, Gillespie goes that extra mile in reminding us how dirt poor she is.

So I, Tonya is an exercise in style that punches down as much as it can.  The majority of the cast is in on this level of vicious camp with the always welcome Bobby Cannavale popping in to top the sleaze with a layer of slick charm.  This leaves I, Tonya with a peculiar problem, as the two performers who aren't aiming for the gutter are also the two most important in the film - Janney as LaVona and Robbie as Tonya.  Janney, in particular, unleashes an antagonistic pride so powerful that it overcomes I, Tonya's most demeaning scenes.  Janney's not pushing for Faye Dunaway-levels of overacting when LaVona tells young Tonya, "Skate wet," after an on-the-ice accident.  Her strength is abusive but unapologetically rooted in the same poor background Gillespie lampoons.

Then there's Robbie, who's simultaneously way too good for I, Tonya and instrumental to the few successful bits of satire that survive.  She makes next to no effort to portray teenage Tonya as a teenager, focusing instead on the broad emotional strokes of each scene while finding ways to make Tonya human.  I loved how Robbie tucked her smile back, gradually shifting her eyes to a wounded gaze when she's told how pretty she is, and letting the power of her mother flow through her when confronting the judges who put her down based on her appearance.  She's good in the absurd moments too, tapping into some of that anarchic glee she brought to Suicide Squad in the fantasies, or belting out her age when she looks twice what she yells.

I, Tonya isn't the kind of film that works well with Janney's pride or Robbie's skill.  Everything about its presentation, from the pseudo documentary to the dirty floors, seeks to rob those two of the dignity in their performances before they have a chance to grow as characters.  The immature political jabs go limp because the setting and presentation invite us to laugh at these people in their pain.  One lingering shot of an, "Americans for Reagan," poster comes across as kicking people who are already suffering.  Reagan was a monstrous buffoon, as is Shawn (who has the poster in his basement), but all this introduces is the idea that dirt poor stupid white trash voted for Reagan.

I'm tired of directors using Margot Robbie's talent to break the fourth wall in varying degrees of undress. At least in Suicide Squad, David Ayer let her play the damn character.

It's the sort of self-satisfied liberal humor that I thought Gillespie was above.  He made the magnificent Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, a Capra-esque slice of fanciful Americana that celebrates the same poor people he beats down with I, Tonya.  There are times that I, Tonya feels like a therapeutic scream for those whose brains were broken after the '16 election and that's no compliment.  Gillespie is smirking as he lashes out, using pop and rock weaved into and out of the diegetic sounds to reinforce that this is their hopeless world as he sees it, and asks us to laugh at how tough Tonya's life was.

There's one moment that breaks through the self-satisfaction when Tonya confronts a judge who tells her, "We need to show a wholesome American family and you just refuse to play along."  Gillespie's direction is so unsparing in trashing Tonya, along with other poor Americans, that this very film could be used as an example by that judge about why Tonya didn't deserve a chance.  The truth is irrelevant, as indicated by the opening text that I, Tonya is based on, "irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews."  So I'm left with a film that tells me it's okay to demean then laugh at the poor, and that leaves me feeling hollow.

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I, Tonya (2017)

Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Screenplay written by Steven Rogers.
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastian Stan.

Posted by Andrew

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