As we catch up with the last year, we turn our gaze to I, Tonya, Raw, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. One of these movies was worth a shit, I guess.
I, TONYA (Craig Gillespie, 2017)
I, Tonya is so much less than the sum of its parts that it's almost dysfunctional, its narrative and tone constantly pulling it in a half-dozen different directions. And so, one minute, it really is a proper sports movie, pretending like the one thing it cared about all along was capturing Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie's) unique combination of resentful blue-collar ambition, enormous athleticism, and idiosyncratic artistry, finding each of these things to be inextricable from her prodigious achievements as the bad girl of 90s' figure skating, especially when she becomes the very first American woman to pull off a daunting triple axel in competition (and, indeed, she remains one of only seven women, worldwide, to have ever done so).
Then in the very next minute, it becomes a nasty, awkward vaudeville show about the domestic abuse which Tonya famously suffered at the hands of her redneck then-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and, less-famously, her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Then the minute after that, it gives up even the slightest pretense of trying to hide its cartoonish predelictions beneath its biographical drama, whereupon the story shifts to the hyper-Coen exploits of its supporting players, focusing particularly upon the high-test delusions of Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser), as he and his team of "operatives" prepare to unleash a singularly poorly-planned hit on Harding's friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) during the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. And then (for a few seconds, anyway), it's on to its underdeveloped critique of figure skating as a prestige pastime for the wealthy. And finally, it's right back to where it started, doing what I suppose it wants to do most of all, which is to be a satire of the media, and an examination of how sensationalist media narratives are created; and this, of course, is by far the most boring thing about it, since I don't reckon that anybody alive in 2018 needs to be reminded that the 24/7 news cycle is a force for evil.
If you get the impression that I, Tonya is mired in cruel ironic distance and winking self-awareness, which together tend to ruin it as anything but a pointy object which director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers can use to poke at American culture in their desperate attempt to vitalize a biopic, I'm afraid you might be right. The cleverest way it situates itself in its decade, therefore—even if it's not entirely intentional—isn't its costume design, or its soundtrack, or even its attempted-throwback cinematography (though I do like its grit). Rather, it's simply I, Tonya's embrace of the quintessentially GenX idea that "being cool" is exactly the same thing as "being sarcastically detached."
The hardest thing to grapple with about the film is the odd structure that enforces this defining cynicism, cobbled together, as it turns out, from 2010s-vintage interviews with the principals, which send Tonya, et al, on a fourth-wall-breaking trip down memory lane. On the one hand, it does vitalize her story: scarcely a scene goes by without Robbie turning to the camera and layering whatever we've seen with Tonya's commentary, either to deny it ever happened, or say it happened differently, or to explain why something that did happen was significant to her. On the other hand, this isn't fucking Rashomon, and the very, very minor differences between Tonya's story and Jeff's story and LaVona's story don't actually make for much of a case of compelling ambiguity.
Oh, I'm being unfair. There is one thing that I, Tonya's capable of doing consistently, and that's treating its assembly of white trash like they were animals in a zoo: it allows Tonya to be human only begrudgingly, and mainly because her story can't not be about her life, and because Margot Robbie came to play regardless of the film's own wishes; it only fails to eradicate Jeff Gillooly's humanity completely because Sebastian Stan sneaks around the screenplay to give the man a semblance of credibility, though his character might still mainly be little more than your basic archetype of "the weak-willed wife-beater"; and nobody else is human at all, abandoned in the several one-note joke roles that the film is completely disinterested in interrogating beyond their capacity for ugly, off-center comedy. (In between her long bouts of profanity, abuse, and parrot-wrangling, Gillespie is presumably of the opinion that Allison Janney does all the character work she needs to in his lingering close-ups of LaVona's face as she watches Tonya on TV. He is extremely wrong about this, and for all the merits of Janney's commitment-to-the-bit, there's absolutely nothing about her the film wants you to actually take seriously, and you certainly don't. Instead, I, Tonya banks mostly upon its spurious verisimilitude, distracting you with a humorous recreation of the real LaVona's admittedly-disastrous haircut.) These people probably are precisely as ludicrous as they appear. The problem is that I, Tonya doesn't even remotely care why.
It's unnecessarily shallow in virtually every single respect, then—from its nearly nonexistent probing of Tonya's love for her sport, to the penultimate moment that obnoxiously calls the audience out for being interested in her tale—and it's shallow to the extent that it does an active disservice to Robbie's performance, which is terribly great, and which does more to tell you about Tonya's drives and heartache than everything else in the movie combined—despite the fact that I, Tonya is at least as interested with making you titter (ironically, natch) at the fact that Robbie barely resembles Harding and, in fealty to 90s couture, has been savaged from head to chin by the makeup and hair department. It's maybe even more interested in the fact that Robbie is visibly too much of an adult in command of her own being to play this 23 year-old womanchild naturalistically. (Yet it does this, sadly enough, without actually committing to the essential slapstick of its single most-visual gag: sure, it's funny that Robbie plays Harding as a 15 year-old. It follows that it would be even funnier if she'd played her as a 4 year-old, too—and it would've done that crucial little bit more to remind us of the immaturity of Tonya's character as a 23 year-old, and confirm to us the intention behind the silly artifice, and underscore the embittered-yet-unbowed retrospection that is, at the end of the day, the shriveled black heart pumping I, Tonya's cold, curdled blood.)
It does have other compensations beyond Robbie (and, to a lesser extent, Stan). It is, despite my grousing, still funny. And when it wants to be, it's a terrifically kinetic study of figure skating as a physical act. If Gillespie leans upon this aspect of the film gingerly outside of the centerpiece triple axel sequence (and if he only figured out enough interesting ways to film figure skating for one sequence's worth of shots, or if the face replacement is not 100% on point)—well, hell, it's all still pretty great in the moment. Meanwhile, when Gillespie does find the right register for his mocking tone, he offers up at least one extended bout of legitimately fantastic filmmaking, with the "hit" scene constructed with an air of parodic seriousness and urgency that is no less actually-thrilling for being, in its bare facts, both goofy and hilariously low-rent. Now, it has other problems besides its structure, of course: for every well-crafted sequence, there's another that relies on the lazy recognition factor of a pop song, or that turns into an undisciplined tracking shot that seems to exist for the pure sake of it before getting away from Gillespie entirely.
Altogether, it's a movie that does a lot to make me not like it. But I did like it—somebody, possibly just editor Tatiana Riegel, decided that the movie needed to end on a note of forceful emotion, rather than just a summary of its decades-later snark, and that the best way to do this would be to reward Robbie's powerful performance with a powerful conclusion to Tonya's anti-sports-movie anti-arc. (If I, Tonya ever finds true greatness, it's in its very final image, a pool of blood on a white background that, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the ice upon which Tonya made her name.) So it's good, I guess, that somebody approached the Tonya Harding story with this much ambition, even if what he wound up doing with it was taking a long, hard look at America that's messier, angrier, and more condescending than it is ever actually insightful. It is good, also, that somebody's trying to do something different with the biographical form, and that's worth applauding no matter what; but maybe it's not so good that Fargo still feels like more like a true story than this one.