December 20, 2017

CINEMA | 'I, Tonya' – Margot Robbie Skates Hard

"I don't have a wholesome American family."
Margot Robbie Craig Gillespie | I, Tonya

Australian actress Margot Robbie (also a producer) stars as the infamous American figure skating icon Tonya Harding in a surreal biopic portrait—think The Big Short meets Goodfellas with ice skating—of the disgraced (but possibly misunderstood) celebrity figure. I, Tonya starts off as a sympathetic yet scathing tragicomedy, mixing melodrama and docudrama, of growing up dirt poor in small town America while dreaming of using talent and hard work to escape a life of poverty and domestic abuse.

Journeyman director Craig Gillespie is an inspired choice to relay  the "irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true" story of Harding's unbelievable life. Based on wildly conflicting, unreliable first-hand accounts from Harding herself and her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, it mostly works as a contemporary pop biography teasing the birth of twenty-four hour news cycle and reality television culture.

While Robbie looks nothing like Harding and has an inherent glamorous charm to her, through elaborate hair pieces, tons of makeup, and '90s costuming, she transforms herself into playing Harding from age fifteen into her forties seemingly effortlessly. She's never been better and shines through mixing her own dynamic screen presence with Harding's skilled inherent (sometimes villainous) charm. Child actress Mckenna Grace is ably spunky playing Harding as a kid.

The story is essentially a brisk three-hander alternating between Sebastian Stan's heavily moustached and bumbling Gillooly, Harding, and Harding's foul-mothed mother LaVona played boisterously by Allison Janney. Janney's LaVonna is more than a bitter caricature. She's full of liveliness as a cruel old woman who only knows how to achieve anything one way and on her terms.

Margot Robbie Sebastian Stan Craig Gillespie | I, Tonya

Truly, Paul Walter Hauser as the fat and dumb witted bodyguard (or "terrorism expert") Shawn Eckhardt is the true superstar of the film. His dryly ridiculous performance only highlights the sheer amount of stupidity of all those involved in the barely there scheme to injure Harding's natural Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver)—who has one single line of dialogue, infamously "Why, why, why?". His chemistry alongside Stan's earnest portrayal as troubled small town buddies is just so lively.

How Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers dramatize the bungled attack on Kerrigan (referred to as "the incident") is chilling in its absurd stupidity. Neither Harding nor Gillooly are treated as either misunderstood victims nor out-and-out villains but merely flawed individuals not long for the scrutiny of the limelight.

In the film, Harding is portrayed as seemingly trained to take abuse all her life. Ice skating was her only shining hope of achieving anything. Others saw this to their advantage and her talent was simply not enough to overcome as the only saving grace was eventually ripped away. It's truly a tragic story that almost moves past its wild shifts in tones as a result of the sheer talent of its acting, writing, and direction.

I, Tonya is a fun and timely portrait of class and celebrity culture. It never decides exactly how comic or dramatic it wants to be while referencing its unreliable narrators and breaking the fourth wall. Robbie is sensational and Gillespie's direction is so energetic. Despite its highs, it doesn't quite stick the landing in transforming tragedy into comedy. However, it's likely not nearly as messy as Harding's real-life was/is and is a fitting and compassionate dramatization of its peaks.

I, Tonya opens in Vancouver on January 5th.

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