"I, Tonya" plays its heroine for laughs
The opening title cards of “I, Tonya” establish one thing loud and clear: This is meant to be a funny movie, if not an outright comedy. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Nothing about the Tonya Harding story is particularly funny, even when fired off rapidly for chuckles by David Letterman, a man who can dehumanize anyone for personal gain.
Yet in “I, Tonya,” a woman abused her entire life is often played for laughs. Yes, the men responsible for assaulting an innocent young woman were bumbling fools, but did you gloss over the part of the sentence where I mentioned an innocent young woman being assaulted? We get Harding’s side of the story through fourth-wall breaks and interview sessions, but even those feel cheap because it doesn’t seem like the film trusts Harding.
The problem with playing “you gotta hear both sides” in this film is the guy on the other side is someone who Harding accused of violently attacking her for years. By giving these characters’ stories equal weight, it further serves to cheapen everything that comes out of Harding’s mouth; worse still, that kind of seems like the point. Director Craig Gillespie wants to make “I, Tonya” a fun, poppy movie — and in fairness, it is. Margot Robbie does a marvelous job bringing the fiery Harding to life.
It’s worth asking if this is the right movie to make given the more serious elements surrounding her, though. This isn’t “Whip It” with ice skates, and it isn’t an opportunity to show a flair for working pop songs into a 100-minute film. Harding’s legacy in American pop culture is in it of itself something worth exploring, and “I, Tonya” hardly scratches the surface of the 24-hour news cycle it helped create.
Early in the film, a character says Harding is a lot like America. She means Harding is a handful, but someone who you must respect. I think Harding revealed America’s obsession with absolutes. Even as “I, Tonya” wants you to see Harding’s painful upbringing, her abusive mother and ex-husband, it doesn’t take any time to see what it’s doing to her legacy. Harding is complicated, certainly, but so are many men who have been given much kinder biopics. Hell, “Steve Jobs” got two of them.
Much like “Jackie,” in which Natalie Portman portrayed a woman who went through hell at the hands of terrible men, it seems like “I, Tonya” gives its leading lady short shrift. The complicated nature of the characters sentences them to a fate not given to famous men who are no less entrenched in grey areas. Gillespie dips his toe into this briefly, as Harding addresses the audience midway through the film: “You’re my attackers. All of you,” she says.
That hardly feels earned after the hour of bubble gum served up by the director. Robbie breaks the fourth wall while Sebastian Stan attacks her, Allison Janney quips after a cruel remark and it’s worth noting all this comes before Harding’s 16th birthday. This never comes with the gravity it should because this isn’t the movie Gillespie wants to make. His ideal Harding movie doesn’t exist, because it requires a DeLorean and an alternate timeline.
Instead, he does to Harding’s story what the brilliant skater hated her entire career: he puts her story into an unrecognizable outfit to try to make it fit in. In so doing he lightens the mood on assault, allows the world to see Harding as a meme instead of a human being and squanders the opportunity to make a movie that actually means something.