By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
With all the insight and realism of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, this telling of the bizarre incidents which occurred around figure skater Tonya Harding, feels more like an extended episode of a trashy reality TV show rather than a well-handled account of a person who proved to be her own worst enemy.
Opening as a faux documentary in 2004, we are quickly introduced to a number of the main players, including Harding (Margot Robbie), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her harsh, domineering mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Right from the start we get Rashomon-like recollections about what happened and who was at fault, and soon the story springboards through various time frames (70’s, 80’s, and 90’s), showing how Harding became obsessed with skating, her relationship with Jeff and LaVona, and the events which lead to what everyone refers to in the movie as ‘the incident’.
I, Tonya is a mess, lacking discipline in narrative cohesion and tonal control. While the subject itself could only be approached as an absurdist comedy, the wild flailing by director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, The Finest Hours) and writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Step Mom, Love the Coopers) destroys any chance of this briefly notorious escapade developing into anything remotely interesting.
Matters aren’t helped by a multitude of devices used to tell this sordid tale, which does nothing but keep the viewer at arm’s length. Firstly we get the mockumentary, followed by voice-over narration, then out-of-nowhere the film-makers suddenly decide to have characters talk directly to the camera, Ferris Bueller-style. This overuse of story-telling techniques buries the material, raising the question that Gillespie is unsure how to present Harding’s world. The relentless he-said-she-said mentality, reminiscent of the 2013 misfire Lovelace, only dissipates interest and potential sympathy, as it is never made authentically clear what behind-the-scenes aspects we are being told are true, and what are nothing more than self-serving fabrications.
Even the look of the film is inconsistent, employing a 70’s-style aesthetic during scenes set in that era, but Gillespie then maintains that sheen when the story progresses through the 80’s and 90’s, giving the whole endeavour a confusingly inert sense of time and place.
Gillespie seems to want to emulate the frantic, stylised atmosphere of Oliver Stone’s 90’s efforts and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but has neither the command or skill of either of those legendary film-makers, and the result is an incredibly broad and empty exercise. Another director who could have successfully brought this topic to deranged life is Matthew Bright, who crafted the 1996 cult favourite Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon.
Performances suffer, due to film-maker overkill rather than any thespian incompetence. Robbie, who rocketed to international attention with her fireball performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, isn’t afforded the same kind of focused guidance this time around, and as such never reveals Harding to be anything more than a redneck stereotype. It is ludicrous when Robbie is supposed to play Harding at age fifteen, as she clearly looks several years too old. Stan (who looks like popular supporting actor Scoot McNairy) delivers a similarly over-the-top turn, and the production’s one-note attitude even hamstrings the terrific Janney (The West Wing, Juno), who almost looks like she has walked off the set of Grey Gardens.
The decision to CGI Robbie’s face over a skating double proves disastrous, as the inept effects distract the viewer’s eye from the very thing the main character loves doing.
I, Tonya obviously wants to be a sharp, satiric look at the lengths individuals will go to, no matter how imbecilic they are, to achieve success, a distortion of the genuine American dream every person strives for. But the somewhat condescending execution is missing both focus and purpose, resulting in a film that misses the mark by a considerable mile, despite undeniable talent in front of and behind the camera (particularly cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, who lensed Bullhead and The Drop, and editor Tatiana S. Riegel, who worked on The Million Dollar Hotel and Pu-239).
Rating: 2/5BEST QUOTES