I, Tonya

I, Tonya ★★★

Margot Robbie is the real deal. She becomes Tonya Harding in this film, and it's not just a variation on what she's already done as Harley Quinn or anything. It shows Robbie flexing a slightly different set of muscles, accessing a slightly different gear. It's not 100% different from what she's already shown us she's capable of but, then again, she's so awesome at playing tenacious, no-nonsense women that I honestly don't want her to stray too far from that. The woman is a star, and stars often occupy a certain niche. (Look at Tom Cruise or James Cagney or, hell, anybody). This is Robbie's niche, and she is spectacular at it. There's a wounded, vulnerable side to her version of Tonya Harding as well, which is deeper than anything she's shown thus far (at least different from the performances I have seen from her) and the abuse angle shows that she might be a streamroller on the ice, but off of it she's as fucked up and flawed as any of the rest of us. When the skates are off, she's as low on self-confidence as anyone else, even lower.

Robbie's performance is the best thing about "I, Tonya" though there is a lot to recommend about it. Without her electrifying, multi-faceted, badass performance, however, it wouldn't really be worth a second look. Craig Gillespie is clearly trying to show us this whole ridiculous situation, and present these characters as quirky fuck-ups, but the tone is a bit off and it all feels a bit condescending. He's like a carnival barker inviting us to check out a freak show at times, and that feels a bit crass considering this is a true story and that people actually lived through this lunacy. He treats the domestic abuse as a punchline at times, and that just feels wrong.

Another problem is that, aside from Robbie who is so good that she can literally humanize a cartoon character, the other actors all feel a bit cartoonish and broad. I found Allison Janney highly entertaining, but I also felt that she was a total caricature. Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser have the same problem, and since they're not as strong of actors as Janney it's even more troublesome and tonally jarring. Gillespie's decision to include faux interviews with the actors pretending to be the real people commenting on the events doesn't work either. It's a lot more exhilarating when he has them break the fourth wall within scenes to comment directly on what's happening within the scene. Those moments feel electric and unique. The faux interviews just feel dull and halt the film's momentum.

When the movie gets out of its own way and lets that momentum flow, however, it's a pretty engaging experience. A lot of the musical choices feel tired (can we all agree to call a moratorium on "Spirit in the Sky"? It feels like it's been used in 800 movies by this point.) but some of them work brilliantly (the skating sequence set to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag" is the highlight of the whole damned movie). It's stuff like that which makes "I, Tonya" electrifying and maddening in equal measure. It feels condescending and downright mean at times, but it soars at others. Some of it is jarring and cartoonish, and some of it feels heartfelt and exploratory about our tabloid culture and the people it grinds up and spits out.

When it works, "I, Tonya" is pretty great. If only it worked more often.

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