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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

But it is Tonya we see bearing the burden of that sacrifice, forced to grow up in a loveless household and doomed to marry the first handsome loser she meets: Jeff Gillooly, nicely played by Sebastian Stan as a mustache in search of an IQ. When it comes to smacking Tonya around, Jeff more or less picks up where LaVona leaves off.

Tonya, for her part, slaps back at him hard and often; if they gave gold medals for groin kicking, she'd win it handily. In any case, not all the blows she endures are physical. We see Tonya's career take a heavy beating from the judges who consistently award her lower marks than they do her rivals, mainly because her amateurishly stitched dresses and broken-home upbringing don't fit the wholesome image they're looking for. (The svelte, elegant Kerrigan, briefly played here by Caitlin Carver, fits the mold perfectly.)

That makes Gillespie's movie one of just a few films this year to grapple with issues of class, privilege, perception, celebrity and the elusiveness of the American dream, which is a rare enough achievement to make you wish it were a better one. The story's forebears are self-evident: With its killer soundtrack and bold, muscular camera moves, "I, Tonya" is clearly conceived in the epic tall-tale vein of "Goodfellas" or "American Hustle," even as it questions and undermines its own narrative at every turn with a flippancy that recalls movies such as "The Big Short."

These are cheaply entertaining but unoriginal gambits, and after two viewings I'm not convinced they're warranted. Harding's story, in this overly broad retelling, is not especially strong on narrative density -- or, for that matter, ambiguity. When Tonya's coach Diane Rawlinson (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) marvels, "She really did that!" in reference to an especially grueling training regimen, it's not exactly the stuff of revelation. The attack on Kerrigan, presided over by Jeff's dangerously delusional friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, imposing if one-note), plays out as sadly and tiresomely as most dumb-criminal schemes do.

Robbie's performance, especially in its wrenching final moments, lights up the movie like a beacon, and her sympathetic reclamation of Harding's image feels fully earned. But the irony of this story -- especially with a title like "I, Tonya" -- is that Tonya herself, easy as she is to root for, feels almost upstaged by all the secondhand goombah shenanigans on display. Gillespie may be indebted to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and David O. Russell, but the character depth and tonal control of their best work seem beyond his reach.

That may explain why all the recurring nods to Harding's abusive past leave a peculiarly sour aftertaste. It's not that "I, Tonya" invites us to laugh at domestic violence, exactly; it's more that the movie doesn't have the wit, the chops or the insight to transcend the banality of what it's showing us. When Gillespie turns a well-aimed kick into a punchline, or lays Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" over a slap-happy montage, it's not clear what he's signifying, really, except maybe the limits of his own imagination.

Justin Chang: justin.chang@latimes.com

'I, TONYA'

 

Rated: R, for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Playing: In limited release

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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