In this buzzy new biopic from director Craig Gillespie, Australian actress Margot Robbie gives a monster of a performance as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, whose rivalry with local champ Nancy Kerrigan gave the then-nascent 24-hour news cycle its first taste of blood.
This 1994 scandal was made in tabloid heaven, pitting rough-around-the-edges Harding and her white trash family against America’s Olympic sweetheart, boosted by the novelty that these pretty young princesses doing figure eights could be as viciously competitive as their trash-talking dude counterparts in contact sports. Heck, more competitive — as evidenced when Kerrigan was attacked outside of a practice rink by a stooge we later learned had been hired by Harding’s sleazy ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.
“I, Tonya” attempts to peer behind the headlines two decades later, with Robbie bringing unexpected pathos and dimension to a person who became a national punchline. It’s a stirring, soulful turn. Too bad the movie hangs her out to dry.
Based on what we’re told are “wildly contradictory” interviews with the real-life participants by screenwriter Steven Rogers, the movie adopts a mock-documentary format in which the actors wear unconvincing makeup to play these now middle-aged characters providing present day commentary to an unseen journalist. The events of Harding’s rise and fall are presented as comically heightened re-enactments, full of muggy performances and goofy wig humor, with director Gillespie showing off how many times he saw "GoodFellas" via an onslaught of crash-zooms and sinewy dolly shots set to ‘70s classic rock. (More on that in a minute.)
These unreliable narrators are constantly breaking the fourth wall, pulling faces and asserting their innocence to the camera — keeping a jokey, jaunty air except for the dozen times or so Tonya gets punched in the face.
There are harrowing sequences of domestic abuse in “I, Tonya” that the movie frankly has no idea what to do with. From the early scenes of 4-year-old Harding being beaten with a hairbrush by her harridan mother (Allison Janney, pounding away at a single note for two hours) to Robbie taking a pasting from a gun-toting Gillooly, the violence comes out of nowhere and rattles the movie’s smarmy, sketch-comedy tone. There is a way to do this kind of thing responsibly -- as when Leonardo DiCaprio undercut three hours of slapstick by beating the crap out of Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But Craig Gillespie is, putting it charitably, not Martin Scorsese, no matter how many camera moves he borrows from the master. The film’s depiction of abuse feels glib and unearned, alarmingly at odds with the surrounding frivolity.
But then again the whole movie feels at odds with itself, chiding the audience for disrespecting Harding’s underprivileged background while at the same time chock full of sight gags sniggering at poor people. There’s the stuff of a rousing underdog saga here, with tomboy Tonya butting up against the prissy, dollhouse femininity being peddled by the professional figure skating industry. But this garish movie feels like it’s mocking her dreams, thanks in no small part to a thuddingly obvious collection of needle-drop soundtrack cues so on-the-nose I left the theater wishing someone could have kneecapped the music supervisor.
Whether it's “Devil Woman,” “Feels Like the First Time” or “Goodbye Stranger,” the music in “I, Tonya” constantly comments upon whatever you’re seeing onscreen in the laziest and most tiresome fashion imaginable. Leaving aside for a moment that there’s no good reason whatsoever for a film set in the 1990s to be scored with a collection of ‘70s AM hits, I feel like these groaner soundtracks have become something of an epidemic in movies as of late.
Music licensing for classic rock used to be prohibitively expensive, so filmmakers had to fill out their movies with obscure, or at least lesser-known, tunes. But since nobody buys albums anymore, the record labels must be angling for ancillary revenue streams. I assume that's why soundtracks for movies like “War Dogs,” “Suicide Squad” and “I, Tonya” are riddled with the most obnoxiously overplayed chestnuts and at least five movies this summer featured a John Denver song. (Also, Gillespie has a lot of nerve trying to use “Gloria” in a Margot Robbie movie after the yacht rescue sequence in the aforementioned “Wolf of Wall Street.”)
There’s a way to view the Harding saga as the beginning of American culture’s slide into trashy, reality show vulgarity, a topic “I, Tonya” artlessly addresses by having Bobby Cannavale turn up as a Hard Copy reporter who recites the screenwriter’s thesis points into the camera. There’s a late-movie glimpse of a bloody glove in Brentwood on TV as the news trucks all abruptly flee, which only served to remind me how elegantly a similar media circus was evoked and excoriated in Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s masterful 2016 miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” In comparison “I, Tonya” is just smug preening.
"I, Tonya" opens in the Boston area on Thursday, Dec. 21.