Northampton Press

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Movie Review: ‘I, Tonya,’ you, and me

Monday, February 12, 2018 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

It helps to know your history to appreciate “I, Tonya,” a brutal and apparently uncomfortably honest biopic about disgraced Olympic ice-skating athlete Tonya Harding.

While one can’t completely verify the veracity of the movie, which has been disowned by Harding’s mother, “I, Tonya” appears to present the “facts” in a different setting from recent television interview shows and documentaries with and about Harding (“Good Morning Ameica,” “The View,” ESPN’s “The Price Of Gold”), and includes the standard end-credits movie disclaimer ( ... “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental ....”), “I, Tonya” is a must-see for sports fans, the tabloid media-obsessed and admirers of well-crafted films.

“I, Tonya” is nominated for three Oscars: actress (Margo Robbie, who portrays Harding with fierce determination and sad resignation), supporting actress (Allison Janney, who “becomes” Harding’s mother, LaVona), and editing (Tatiana S. Riegel).

My movie-goer companion at the screening was curious as to why the film is titled “I, Tonya.” I can’t vouch for director Craig Gillespie, but “I, Claudius,” the highly-regarded 1934 novel by Robert Graves, which became the basis for a 1976 BBC-TV miniseries, was a faux autobiography. Graves wrote in the first-person voice of Claudius, fourth Emperor of Rome (41-54 AD), who insisted on “writing the truth.” The parallel, of course, is that we can’t really determine Claudius’s, nor Tonya’s, “truth.”

While some reviewers have trivialized “I, Tonya” as a “dark comedy” and minimalized it as “hilarious,” it is much more than this. The film is nothing less than a modern tragedy, a Greek tragedy, if you will. And it is yet another account of the media gone wild, at the expense of those involved and to the delight of the viewing and reading public. That includes, after all, you and me, as Tonya reminds us late in the film.

“I, Tonya” includes wince-inducing, face-smacking and head-cracking violence to Harding, who was allegedly hit by her mother, allegedly slugged and shot at twice with a gun (once wounded) by her fiance and then husband, Jeff Gillooly (an excellent Sebastian Stan); denigration by U.S. Figure Skating judges, who allegedly just couldn’t accept her wrong-side-of the tracks upbringing and demeanor, and the whack to the knee of ice-skating rival Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships by alleged hitman, Shane Stant, allegedly orchestrated by then ex-husband Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckardt.

The film tells Harding’s story with direct-to-camera interviews of Robbie portraying her and Janney portraying her mother. There are also scenes where Robbie breaks the fourth wall, Shakespearean stage style. and speaks directly to the movie-goer.

Gillespie (“The Finest Hours,” 2016; “Fright Night,” 2011; “Lars And The Real Girl,” 2007) keeps the pace joltingly-real, never letting up on the docu-drama style immediacy, propelled by Riegel’s editing.

Robbie (“Goodbye Christopher Robin,” 2017; “Suicide Squad,” 2016; “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” 2013) is incredible as Harding. Her skating is convincing (although she did not do a triple axel). It’s a totally-commited performance of career-marking brilliance.

Janney (“The Help,” 2011; TV’s “The West Wing,” 1999-2006) disappears into her character, portraying an inner awfulness that is squirm-inducing.

“I, Tonya” is the ultimate “Cinderella” fairy tale gone sour, a portrayal of mother-daughter dysfunctionalism that’s all too real. Tonya’s pumpkin carriage ride remained a pumpkin. She stitched together her own ice-skating costumes (no magical mice here). And she never danced with her prince at the ball (an Olympics medal eluded her).

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the Tonya Harding story still fascinates. It’s especially timely against the backdrop of the tragic Olympic gymnastics allegations, the “me, too” movement, and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea.

Though Tonya Harding (now Tonya Price) wants to be remembered as the first United States female figure-skater to land a triple axel (at 1991’s U.S. Nationals), ”I, Tonya” reignites the public’s (yours and mine and ours) fascination with the rest of the story.

“I, Tonya,” MPAA rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content-nudity; Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama; Run time: 2 hrs.; Distributed by Neon.

Credit Readers Anonymous: The “I, Tonya” end credits include snippets of Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, Shawn Eckardt and LaVona Harding, as well as updates about the main characters.

Box Office, Feb. 9: “Fifty Shades Freed,” opening at No. 1 with $38.8 million, threw some shade on Dwayne Johnson’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which dropped three clicks from No. 1 to No. 4 with $9.8 million, $365.6 million, eight weeks, holding off the animated feature, “Peter Rabbit,” opening at No. 2 with $25 million, and director Clint Eastwood’s fact-based drama, “The 15:17 To Paris,” opening at No. 3 with $12.6 million.

5. “The Greatest Showman” (one Oscar nomination: original song) dropped two places, with $6.4 million, $146.5 million, eight weeks. 6. “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” dropped four places, $6 million, $49 million, three weeks. 7. “Winchester” slipped four places, $5 million, $17.1 million, two weeks. 8. “The Post” (two Oscar nominations: picture; actress: Meryl Streep) dropped two slots, $3.5 million, $72.8 million, eight weeks. 8. “The Shape Of Water” (13 Oscar nominations, Directors Guild of America recipient, director Guillermo del Toro) held steady, $3 million, $49.7 million, 11 weeks. 10. “Den Of Thieves” dropped two spots, $2.9 million, $40.9 million, four weeks. 15. “I, Tonya” dropped three places, $1.5 million, $25.2 million, 10 weeks.

Unreel, Feb. 16:

“Black Panther,” PG-13: Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o in the Science-Fiction film. T’Challa returns to Wakanda to succeed his father, the king, who has died.

“Early Man,” PG: Nick Park directs the voice talents of Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, and Timothy Spall in the Animation Comedy. Dug and Hognob fight Lord Nooth in prehistoric times.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes