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Movie review: Margot Robbie's spirited performance almost skates past 'I, Tonya's' dark comedy

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

It's no spoiler to note that "I, Tonya" ends the way many Hollywood biopics end, with a quick glimpse of the real-life individual we have just seen skillfully impersonated for the past two hours -- in this case, the disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding, fiercely incarnated by the Australian actress Margot Robbie.

Notably, we are shown not just a photograph of Harding but a clip of her history-making performance at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where she became the first American woman to land the elusive triple axel in competition. The 20-year-old Harding, then in the prime of her soon-to-be-foreshortened career, looks jubilant, fully at ease and marvelously fleet-footed; she's a whirling dervish in turquoise fringe.

It's telling that this is the image the movie leaves us with: a reminder that before she became a national pariah, her name forever linked with that of her erstwhile rival and alleged victim, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding was every inch a champion.

Of course, the clip is also an opportunity for us to mentally replay Robbie's performance and draw favorable comparisons with the real deal. Like judges in our own personal thespian Olympics, we are invited to admire the skill and precision with which Robbie nails Harding in that glorious moment -- her fragile joy, her exultant grin and her extraordinary athletic prowess (the latter reproduced on-screen with a seamless digital assist).

"I, Tonya," in other words, makes no attempt to hide its eagerness for the audience's approval. That's both apt and more than a little disingenuous, since the hasty, fickle judgment of the masses is one of the movie's chief satirical targets.

Those of us who recall the notorious events of Jan. 6, 1994, the day Kerrigan suffered a career-sidelining attack by an assailant hired by Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, may also remember the contempt that was rained down on Harding for months afterward by a public assured of her complicity, and by a news media eager to spin the whole sordid affair into a ratings bonanza.

 

In focusing on Harding in the years before that incident, from her tough working-class upbringing in Portland, Ore., to the relentless abuse she endured at various hands, "I, Tonya" issues a sharp, acerbic corrective, as well as a sympathetic plea for the fundamental humanity and decency of its much-battered heroine. Directed with brash, crowd-pleasing flair by Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl"), the movie is a deeply American tragedy in white-trash black-comedy drag, an unruly feast of mock-documentary interviews, unreliable narrators and other glib assaults on the fourth wall.

Its point seems to be that while the truth may be uncertain, the public can always be counted on to jump to the most sordid possible conclusions. And the writer Steven Rogers, who based his screenplay on "wildly contradictory" interviews with Harding and Gillooly, does not set the record straight so much as revel in its holes and contradictions. Shuffling a cast of clashing voices who riff and annotate the story as it goes along, the movie dares us to guess whether we are watching a truthful depiction, a garish exaggeration or a snarky amalgam of both.

And so you may wonder how much the real LaVona Golden, Harding's estranged mother, resembled the withered, withering Gorgon embodied here by a scene-stealing Allison Janney. Spraying expletives in every direction, fixing the world with a glare that suggests a kinship with H.R. Giger's Alien, LaVona smacks her daughter around physically and verbally, berating her performance on the ice and demanding that she see her teammates as rivals rather than friends. (Tonya is played in her younger years by Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace.)

As LaVona points out, there's a method to her meanness. "I made you a champion, knowing you'd hate me for it," she snarls in one of her few printable lines. "That's the sacrifice a mother makes."

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