Let me open this by saying that I have pretty profoundly mixed feelings on I, Tonya, a film that I sort of loved and hated in equal measure. A sort of meta-biopic of Tonya Harding that features duelling (and contradictory) narratives from various players, fourth-wall breaking, and a desire to look back at this story that was one of the foundations of the 24-hour news cycle we’re stuck with today, I, Tonya is undeniably ambitious, surprisingly funny, and never boring. And yet, at the same time, there’s often a sense that it’s a film on the verge of spinning out of control, with wildly clashing tones, constant (and grating) musical choices, and characters that are so over the top as to be cartoonish. And yet again, there’s an argument to be made (that I first heard articulated by Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show) that, in many ways, all of that is the perfect form for a movie about Tonya Harding: loud, brash, contradictory, a little grating, but technically ambitious and overachieving, and unafraid to be itself, no matter what.
That contradictory batch of feelings echoes for me all the way through the film, down to the performances. On the one hand, you have Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan as Harding and Gillooly, both playing older versions of themselves reflecting back through their own lives, and altering their performances to match the version of the story they’re in. When the film focuses on the two of them, it’s fantastic; the two of them bring out nuance and complexity in characters that have been so often reduced to caricature by the media, and the added dimension of having them reflect back lets us see how the incident and its aftermath impacted their lives. (And enough good can’t be said about both Robbie and Stan, who are phenomenal; the film demands a lot of them, and they rise to the occasion, playing their roles like chameleons that match whatever scene they’re in.) But then, on the flip side, you have Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s mother and Gillooly’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, respectively. Both are superb in their roles, but the film turns both into absurd cartoons, robbing them of anything except over the top dialogue and one-note writing that hammers away at the impression they’re supposed to make. Janney is awful and cruel and vicious; Hauser is idiotic and clueless and delusional. And both do a fantastic job in their roles, giving their all and making their scenes great, but there’s a sense that both roles are so absurd and one-dimensional that they grate, especially in contrast to how well the film handles Harding and Gillooly.
But couldn’t you argue, you could say, that the film is so clearly subjective – so clearly focused on the perspectives of Gillooly and Harding – that those roles should be cartoonish? In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t a caricature of these people; it’s how Harding and Gillooly saw them, since we don’t get their side of it? There’s an argument to be made there, I think (although it doesn’t take into account the way that Janney seems to occasionally enter into the film as a narrator herself); similarly, you could use some of that to deal with some of the film’s other excesses. Most notably, I’d say, is the film’s constant, incessant soundtrack of classic rock standards; it often comes across as a film without any confidence in its audience to get the emotional vibes it’s trying to convey. On the other hand, could you argue that they reflect the soundtrack that Tonya wants to put onto her own life, and the soundtrack of her memories? Maybe so.
But the more I think on I, Tonya, the more I think the film’s execution simply doesn’t work, no matter how much I feel like I love what it was trying to do. I love that the film digs into Harding’s working-class roots and makes it clear that the narrative of her being a white-trash thug comes from a media snobbery; at the same time, the film’s portrait of her roots is often every bit as condescending and sneering as that of the people it’s criticizing. I admire the way the film takes on Harding’s abusive life, often showing it brutally and unflinchingly; at the same time, it often jars horribly with the film’s glib tone, and sometimes feels as though it’s being played for laughs when it shouldn’t be (most notably with Janney’s horrific Mommy Dearest). And more than anything, the film feels smug and can’t let anything be left to subtlety. (A scene that reflects this in miniature: there’s a late film shot that finds Gillooly remembering the day the media moved on. In the background, you can just make out that his TV is showing the Nicole Simpson crime scene – a nice, subtle touch. Which the film then hammers home by shifting camera angles to make sure that you can’t miss it, all but foregrounding it.)
I can see why I, Tonya is so popular and well-received. It’s undeniably funny and entertaining, and its goals are fascinating. I love the meta-take on the biopic, and I love the way the film strives to match its content to the stories being told and the people telling them. But it’s a film that also gets exhausting, whose smugness is irritating, whose condescension gets wearying, and whose mashup of tones often doesn’t work and leads to uncomfortable clashes. And most of all, it’s a film that sometimes isn’t sure what it wants to be: a revisionist take on Tonya Harding, or a broad comedy? A fourth-wall-breaking piece of metafiction, or a cartoonishly absurd recapping of a famous incident? It’s a film that I can see why people like, and won’t begrudge them for their appreciation, but just ultimately didn’t work for me that well.