More often than not, biopics tend to be about positive figures in history. That’s not always true (look no further than Downfall, a film about Hitler’s final days), but true stories about famous figures are often designed to lionize rather than vilify. So when your subject is a controversial figure like, say, Tonya Harding, it’s easy to assume that the portrait may not be particularly kind. Infamous for her dust-up with Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, Harding was known more for her off-ice activities than her performance on her skates. Branded as an outsider and white trash not worthy of the elegance of professional figure skating, her reputation wasn’t helped by the realization that her associates had attacked Kerrigan, with the media assuming she coordinated the hit out of professional jealousy. She’s since been branded a pariah, forced into sideshow boxing and the celebrity sex tape game, scrounging together money where she could find it. Everyone who knows about Tonya Harding has already formed an opinion about her. But is it the right one?
I, Tonya is the newest film from director Craig Gillespie, structuring his look at Harding’s life as a biographical tell-all (think VH1 Behind the Music), right down to current day talking head interviews. Harding (Margot Robbie, McKenna Grace as a child) explains her life in her own rather colorful words, tracing her humble origins back to the days her mother (Allison Janney) brought her to the local skating rink to receive lessons from skating coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson), and tracking her life as she becomes a skating prodigy and meets her on again off again partner Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). It all builds to Lillehammer, the attack on Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) and the fallout that made her a pop culture joke for the rest of her life. Throughout the film, her mother, Gillooly, his idiot friend (Paul Walter Hauser) and a Hard Copy producer (Bobby Cannavale) offer their own opinions about her life, painting the picture of a mercurial, but perhaps misunderstood woman looking for some poetic justice in a world that’s abandoned her.
Directed with quite a bit of style and verve by Gillespie, I, Tonya wears its attitude on its sleeve. The tell-all style lends itself to injecting a bit of Rashomon into the proceedings, with the four interviewees offering differing perspectives on the same events, breaking the fourth wall within flashbacks when they disagree. Each character has his or her own agenda to push forth, and the film does a pretty good job of creating character through this structure, letting them define who they are through these interviews and flashbacks (that often have a cheesy re-enactment feel to them). Harding is understandably bitter about what has become of her life, and Robbie embodies that spark plug mentality with every frame. You can see where she gets it from, with the hard smoking, hard drinking, hard cursing Janney providing the template, and her following through with every bad habit. Both Robbie and Janney have received plenty of buzz and plaudits for their roles here, and it’s easy to see why. Janney is especially flashy, providing all the context you could ever need. They’re the best part of the movie, really, never wearing out their welcome despite how off-putting their characters are (which is intentional, of course).
What does wear out its welcome, though, is the egregious needle drops. I’m not entirely sure what it is about Margot Robbie movies and obnoxious soundtracks, but after Suicide Squad and I, Tonya, I’ve been entirely worn out by the whole concept. It doesn’t help that much of the music in I, Tonya often isn’t contemporary to the time period, which would at least give it a sense of place (this is where a film with a ton of soundtrack hits, like Atomic Blonde for example, can be constructive). Most of the sounds seem chosen for their titles more than anything, with the likes of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” and Heart’s “Barracuda” feeling more than a little on the nose. More than anything, they represent an attempt to inject some more attitude into the proceedings, to reflect the caustic performances of the cast. But the cast is good enough that they don’t particularly need that help, making the heavy-handed use of music entirely superfluous. It gives the film an exaggerated “look how cool we are” feel, like the director watched Goodfellas one too many times in a creatively vulnerable state.
I, Tonya is quite a bit like Adam McKay’s The Big Short in that vein. It tells an interesting story that should be heard, but does so in a way so flashy and proud of itself that it gets in its own way too often to be truly enjoyed. Robbie is entirely committed to her role, and is often a treat to watch, with her turn alone being enough of a reason to give I, TONYA a shot. And for those who aren’t put off by the tone of the film, they might be able to get quite a bit out of this biopic, a film that doesn’t treat Harding like a saint nor like a monster. It treats her like a human being instead of the sideshow she’s become. I get what Gillespie was going for. I just wish the movie itself was just a little bit less glib and pleased with itself.