The house lights dim and the following legend greets viewers: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews.” The disclaimer is almost immediately succeeded by bad mom LaVona Golden’s (Allison Janney) first appearance in flashback, backed by Cliff Richard’s pop tune “Devil Woman.” It soon becomes apparent that the interviews won’t be the only irony-free facet of I, Tonya.
Our three leads (Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Janney) kick things off, seated center-frame and giving it their mock-documentary best by parroting video interrogation footage of their characters: Olympic figure-skating champion (and proud redneck) Tonya Harding, her husband Jeff Gillooly, and the unhallowed LaVona, respectively. It’s just one of many flashy narrative gimmicks that repeat throughout a screenplay that, not unlike its characters, doesn’t know when to stop.
Even a die-hard sportsophobe such as I couldn’t help but be drawn to the headline-grabbing details surrounding the Olympic-sized, jealousy-fueled Nancy Kerrigan knee-capping incident, fumblingly executed by Tonya Harding’s pigpen bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). What we didn’t know at the time — and something the film is eager to get across — is what a frightful piece of work Harding’s mom was.
There are ghastly mother figures and then there’s LaVona. Janney is no stranger when it comes to playing derelict, fire-breathing child-bearers (check out her deliciously nasty turn as Loretta in the pitch-black beauty-pageant spoof Drop Dead Gorgeous). But LaVona is based on a factual, dare I say, human, character, a poster child for matricide who still walks among us. (To her credit, the real-life Harding no longer takes Mom’s calls.)
Chalk up the film’s slapdash narrative and overall lack of subtlety to Steven Rogers, the scribe responsible for a pair of economy-size crimes against cinema: Hope Floats (so do bowel movements if there’s enough fat in one’s diet) and Stepmom, a film I would have gladly walked out on had I not seen it on an airplane.
Perhaps Rogers deems his audience as dumb as his redneck characters. How many times must the actors stop dead in their tracks to directly address the camera? At one point, there’s a cut to LaVona lamenting, “Well, my story line is disappearing now.” After hurling a steak knife with such force that it sticks in her daughter’s arm, Mommy Fiercest deadpans, “Oh, please! Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs.”
Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) finds his signature image in a cigarette butt bouncing to a halt on the ice before being snuffed in two by a skate blade. What if one of the little boys or girls saw their idol grabbing a smoke before hitting the rink? (Answer: They’d feel just like their idol, whose mother was never without a reedy brown More dangling from between her lips.) But his work here is not all smooth skating. There is a moment in Gillespie’s staging where confusion almost leads to a clash of fact and fiction. Gillooly fires a round that appears to connect with his fleeing wife. Watching it again, the blood on Tonya’s forehead proves to be the result of a previous fight, and research proves she never took a bullet from her husband. Still, as filmed, the moment he fires the gun, she falls to the ground like a wounded rabbit.
Those who feared Scorsese-discovery Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) might do a flash-and-fade like Cathy Moriarty (Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull) can relax. She transformed what could easily have been just another grotesquerie in a grand guignol into a fully rounded, albeit unsympathetic, character.
Tonya fights back, but ultimately decides to stay with Gillooly, turning much of the mother-daughter relationship dialogue into the stuff old Oprah Winfrey episodes are made of. But there are moments in Rogers’s writing that ring true. Early on, LaVona talks of “putting her daughter on ice,” a double-meaning that’s widely open to interpretation. “My mom hits me and she loves me,” is Tonya’s way of justifying the abuse. She was likewise eager to construe the clubbing of Kerrigan as Gillooly’s way of expressing his love. Viewed in this light, it’s not so funny anymore.
The performances — save one — are dead-on, and it’s difficult to fault Hauser’s one-note interpretation of Eckardt, because the script gives him little to do but act fat and fade into the background. Popeye’s burger-eating pal Wimpy had more depth of characterization than this schlub.
Given all of the emotional and physical violence these characters heap on each other, it’s frequently difficult to find humor in them, particularly the old battleaxe with the Three Stooges haircut and a husband who has a nasty habit of introducing his wife’s head to mirrors, picture frames, and other assorted glass objects. The filmmakers spend so much time focusing on the freakshow side of the story that it might be difficult to find room in your heart to laugh.