It's hard to hate all of the scummy characters in Tonya Harding's tragic life when you're too busy laughing at them.
Margot Robbie got famous for playing a bombshell who, for a brief time in the 1990s, had the world in the palm of her hand and gold around her neck. Now, three years after breaking out in "The Wolf of Wall Street," she’s returning to that era in another tragic story about a pursuit of gold, though the context and details couldn’t be more different.
It’s been clear throughout her short career — even in "Suicide Squad" — that Robbie is a very talented actress, but she’s also been able to coast a bit on the big personalities of her characters and her own endless charm. In playing the infamous former figure skater Tonya Harding, Robbie is given none of those advantages, and is stripped (as far as it’s possible) of her beauty, which had not gone unemphasized in many of her prior roles. And in turn, the movie, in theaters today, marks her best performance to date.
Harding has long been something of a national punchline. After she was implicated in the vicious attack on fellow American Olympian Nancy Kerrigan in early 1994, and later barred for life from competitive skating, Harding went on one of those uniquely American odysseys of desperation, trading dwindling celebrity (or infamy) for smaller and smaller paychecks. A short-lived boxing career and other indignities have been fodder for TMZ, late-night hosts, and social media jokers; she’s become a punchline more than a person.
What’s so strange about "I, Tonya" is that the film continues that tradition of mockery, but also clearly empathizes with Harding. The assault on Kerrigan by two associates of Harding’s ex-husband happened right near the inception of the 24-hour news cycle — CNN rose to prominence during 1991’s Gulf War — and so people were hungry for every little detail about the case. But without an internet, or larger national conversation, the larger context of Harding’s life, relationships, and upbringing largely went undiscussed, which was a crucial exemption.
Most of "I, Tonya" tracks her life leading up to the fateful night a third-rate hitman bashed in Kerrigan’s ankle with a pipe, and it’s largely not pretty. Her life had been a constant uphill struggle to that point, for a myriad of reasons: Harding’s single mother was psychotic, which only exacerbated the facts that she grew up poor, had trouble in school, got into an abusive relationship early on, and was largely an outcast from the one place she truly belonged: the skating rink.
Allison Janney is fantastic as Hardin’s bulldog of a mother, LaVonna, who takes zero shit from anyone. A single mom who works as a waitress, she stands up for herself in a way that working class people often feel is not possible for them; LaVonna won’t take no for an answer when she decides that little Tonya needs to be trained as a figure skater, for example, and works extra shifts to pay for the coaching once she secures it for her daughter. But she also won’t ever let young Tonya rest, and often beats the crap out of her, drunk and spiteful towards the one innocent person in her life.
Janney is such a good comedic actress that you wind up developing far more affection for her than you should. Quirky, grouchy characters are often fan-favorites in movies and TV, but anti-heroes don’t really exist in real life. She was a mean woman who beat up her kid mentally and physically, forever destroying her self-confidence and leading her toward a lot of bad decisions.
One of those decisions was Jeff Gillooly, a local kid with whom Harding instantly fell in love. Because LaVonna was such a witch, Harding moved in with Gillooly when they were still teenagers, which in turn led to her being stuck in a relationship with a guy who would ultimately become a wife-beating creep with a mustache. But again, in “I, Tonya” he’s played by Sebastian Stan, who is handsome and charming and makes you like the creep that would ultimately lead to Harding’s downfall.
Not that LaVonna and Gillooly were the only ones responsible for the sad, broken woman Harding would become. The figure skating world is a snobby, elitist, close-minded bunch, and were even more so in the early ‘90s. They didn’t like Tonya, because she was poor and wore second-hand or improvised costumes hand-sewn by her mother, and because she didn’t have the natural grace of some skaters; she was more of an athlete, performing incredible tricks — she was the first American to successfully land the triple axel in competition — but did not look especially feminine on the ice. They would often imply as much when she got lower-than-deserved scores, noting that skating is “not just about the skating.”
It’s hard to totally buy Robbie as a teenager, or as Harding, who is far from what is considered traditionally beautiful. But with her hair dried out and braces stuck on her teeth, it’s believable enough, considering how much she otherwise melts into the role. She’s at turns nervous and defiant, scared and enthusiastic; she wavers from confidence to bracing to be hit again, and while she occasionally hits back, there’s no way she can handle the onslaught from so many people, both in her life and later around the world.
Later on, the movie becomes a bit of a caper, like a “Logan Lucky” but with even bigger idiots, because that’s the best way to tell a somewhat complicated — if very stupid — story about Kerrigan’s assault. By that point, everyone but Harding is a bit of a caricature, which takes away from the severity of what she’s dealing with; it’s hard to hate people you’re laughing at.
So while “I, Tonya” is a fun watch, and does the service of telling more of Harding’s tale, creating real empathy for her, there are just too many laughs in such a tragic story. Especially now, amidst the #MeToo movement, it’s hard to chuckle at beatings with cheerful, ironic music played underneath. It’s a fun time at the movies, but doesn’t deliver total justice for its subject. Not that Harding will be surprised by that.