What we have in “I, Tonya” is not a standard sports movie but the crazed crossbreed child of “Slap Shot” and “Goodfellas.” Scene by scene, it made me laugh, cringe, get angry, upset, confused, enlightened, entertained, almost tearful and awed.
According to the opening credits, it’s “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” The issue in question is the 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympic skating teammate and rival, a scandal that made Harding the most notorious woman in the world.
The story is told as a time-flipping, many-sided mixed chorus of accounts, a kaleidoscopic view of what occurred. Or what the characters claim occurred, anyway. You know that it’s almost factual yet gleefully bogus because Harding (a brilliant, dazzling and comically great Margot Robbie) and her blissful teen first-date/loser ex-husband Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, doing fine outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe) serve as the movie’s bickering bookends.
We meet the former couple in present-day middle age, long divorced and favoring wildly mismatched perspectives, then follow them through extended flashbacks to their raunchy, rowdy younger lives. Sometimes they break the fourth wall, face the camera while doing something disgraceful and insist, “This is not how it happened.” So, of course, that’s how it happened.
Under the sure hand of director Craig Gillespie (whose “Lars and the Real Girl” followed the romance of a man and a blow-up doll), the movie knows when it’s being nutty. When Harding enters the first bloom of her tomboy youth, we hear her say, “I was 15,” and that very instant the gorgeously mature Robbie appears onscreen in high-waist jeans and unspoiled innocence. The film is an instant gonzo classic.
Robbie, unforgettable as Leonardo DiCaprio’s hot-tempered trophy wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” outshines herself as the title character, gracefully swinging between irony and agony amid surprisingly good skating. She’s cast against type as a self-described Oregon “redneck” and high school dropout. Harding was a natural force on the ice, but one who seemed better suited to the NHL.
The movie puts us in Harding’s corner early, as we meet her abrasive, frequently married, frequently single mother LaVona Golden. She’s played to spine-tingling, hilarious perfection by Allison Janney (who, along with Robbie, should be a safe bet for an Oscar nomination). LaVona pushes her skate-loving 3-year-old into a children’s class so one day she might land a job in “the Ice Capades or something.” Dirt poor, foulmouthed as a mobster and tough as leather, LaVona raises Tonya, her sixth child from her fourth husband, with tough love — except without the love.
Janney generates uproarious slapstick in scenes of this gargoyle walloping young Tonya with a hairbrush or kicking her and her chair over at the dinner table for being sassy. No actress tries harder to make herself detestable even down to her appearance, framing her weathered wrinkles in oversized plastic glasses and a thick pageboy clump of mud-brown hair.
LaVona is repulsive but her caustic personality is compelling. It’s a very odd dynamic. You know you shouldn’t like this woman, but her unsinkable ego just carries you along. When the camera ignores her for a while, she pops back onscreen to complain, “Well, my story line is disappearing now!”
Well before her teens, Tonya (played as a youth by Mckenna Grace) has a pile of JV trophies and her eyes on the big prize. Instead of graceful ballet and classical music, she skated athletic, rock ’n’ roll routines, an extreme-sports strategy that left most competitors behind her in a spray of ice. As the first American woman to jump the difficult triple axel, she powered herself into sports history, class prejudice be damned. Still, she couldn’t get the respect that judges awarded to fellow Olympic competitor Kerrigan, an elegant miss goody two-skates.
Gillespie generates an off-kilter, anything-goes atmosphere. The film is packed with “I can’t believe what I just saw” laughs, even as you wonder, “Why am I laughing?” The goofy Pavlovian smiles keep coming. During a marital spat, Harding wields a shotgun. As she pumps another shell, she pauses and tells the camera, “I never did this.”
When Harding’s love fades and competitive fame rises, the estranged Gillooly tries to win her back by sending Kerrigan a threatening letter to scare her off the ice. That only sets the dominoes falling, ever faster, toward the event everyone here calls “The Incident.”
The film, following the events that made her a household name (and then a punchline to trailer-trash jokes) doesn’t condemn Harding. Nor does it use her hard upbringing as a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. The film follows her to one of her post-skating careers as a female pro boxer, where she’s literally knocked down but stubbornly keeps getting up again.
There’s a great, dense sociological essay here about sports, women, family dysfunction, the American dream and class prejudice, proving that comedy does not have to be silly. Comedy can be about important things.
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★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for pervasive language, violence and sexual content/nudity.