“I, Tonya” has a powerful voice but is terribly self-conscious. The movie wants you to think it is fearless, that it is brash and bold, and most importantly, wants you to think it doesn’t care about what you think. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a high school essay for weeks but getting anxious about how it will be received by teachers and peers, so you say you just wrote it the night before in an effort to look cool and rebellious.
This self-consciousness is explicit in the mockumentary format of the “I, Tonya,” where older versions of the movie’s characters reflect back on events that we are watching on-screen in the present. Sometimes this plays out amusingly, with Margot Robbie’s Tonya grabbing a gun and firing it at her husband, then saying “this never happened.” Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense, like Bobby Cannavale’s character that we meet in the mockumentary sessions but never appears in the main story.
Other times it flat out fails to the movie’s detriment, notably in the sequences when Sebastian Stan’s character Jeff Gillooly savagely abuses and threatens Tonya. It’s an awkward scenario where we feel guilty about how we’re reacting to the events on-screen, even though the characters are all laughing at them. If these horrible moments crafted the tragedy of Tonya Harding, the film shouldn’t be asking us to laugh at them, or worse, judging us when we do.
“I, Tonya’s” narrative faults boil down to the question of what kind of movie did Craig Gillespie want to make. Taking out all of the mockumentary stuff, there is a really solid, entertaining and compelling film here. It could play like a conventional drama as is, or something a bit more Alexander Payne-y with some humorous voice over narration. But what Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers have settled on a weird combo of 1/3 media satire, 1/3 character study and 1/3 tell-tale drama about an American tragedy, a rare combination where the sum is weaker than its parts.
But, maybe that’s the combo to the real-life Tonya Harding, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks athlete who found fame but not so much fortune on that unforgiving ice. Despite how much of the film may be true, Margot Robbie convinces us it is true. She channels Harding’s emotions and insecurities with reckless flair, a despised female anti-hero who hasn’t really committed any major sins or atrocities of her own. When Robbie sits down to do her makeup before her final Olympics performance, the angst and heartbreak she conveys in her eyes, cheeks and bones are a worthy argument of the Best Actress Oscar on their own.
“I, Tonya” is a film that wants you to think about Tonya Harding, how America treated her, our hypocritical love/hatred of sports heroes, the 24/7 news cycle, all that stuff. Instead, it leaves us thinking about certain choices it made, why it chose this specific storytelling route vs. another. It’s a good movie and well worth the watch, but strangely, feels like it failed in whatever it set out to do.