I, TonyaReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/11/17 16:37:33
A rarity for me: I went into "I, Tonya" without knowing who the director was.As the absurdist black-comedic biopic unfurled, I thought, “Whoever made this, he’s really trying to get his Scorsese on.” (I thought “he” because female directors rarely if ever try to get their Scorsese on — they’ve worked too hard to want to ape someone else.) The major tells were the frequent (and frequently ironic) needle-drops and the incessant trackings in and out — the camera almost never stops moving, except when it’s locked down in “interview segments” wherein Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) unburden themselves.
As it happens, the director is the nondescript Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who aside from his Scorsesean gesticulations mostly stays out of the way of the star and co-producer, Margot Robbie. I would like to report that in the reviled Tonya, the media-beloved actress has found something feral, primordial, essential in herself, as De Niro did in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I would like to, but that isn’t true. Robbie is snarly and entertaining, but except for the grinning-rictus-through-tears bit she does in a mirror — and that’ll turn up in her Oscar reel if she’s nominated — she doesn’t locate any humanity except fear, rage, need. And since Robbie is more conventionally attractive than the real Harding, the makeup she wears to render her skin mottled and white-trashy suggests that, in this context where Tonya’s stupid tragedy is played for black comedy, Robbie is condescending to working-class Harding even physically.
I, Tonya left me in a mildly desolate mood. It says that dreams are shit in a country that turns everything to shit. The movie (rather brilliantly, actually) ends with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” and that’s what Tonya is. Pushed into skating as a toddler, forever connected to a ridiculous crime, she has no agency. (She rides and she rides.) The movie’s concerns don’t seem universal — they’re belittlingly specific. We’re just watching these particular dimbulbs — Tonya, her hapless husband Jeff, his buffoonish friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) — as they fuck everything up. The characters get progressively idiotic, until, by the time we get to Shane Stant, the man who actually kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan, he’s so brutally inept we wonder how he manages to figure out his pants in the morning.
It’s difficult to stay engaged in a work that has so little regard for its subjects. Gillespie doesn’t display the freezing contempt of, say, an Alexander Payne, but it’s hard to know what he does feel about these people. The movie hedges its bets more than a little by casting a ringer, Allison Janney, as Tonya’s ghastly mother. Not only has Janney played this sort of role before (as a trailer-trash floozy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which, despite the more farcical context, she may have done subtler and more compassionate work than she does here), she’s still playing it every week on Mom. Janney is America’s sweetheart in the division of endearingly fucked-up mothers. When Tonya’s mother is abusive and hateful here, it just seems like Janney doing her usual shtick; the movie is deadpan-sarcastic about it — look at this moron woman throwing stuff at her moron daughter until finally she lobs a knife at her — and Janney hasn’t been directed to make anything real out of it. Real would be sad, sobering, anathema to the sour good time the movie wants to give us.
Eventually Gillespie drifts away from imitating Scorsese and starts imitating Scorsese’s imitators. The last reel or so has the spun-out, dirge-like melancholia of the last act of Boogie Nights, where people wound up beaten up, in jail, dead, soulless. Here, everyone starts dropping around Tonya like brainless flies, whisked off to jail, and the camera lingers on Tonya in her devastation after she is sentenced to life without professional ice skating. Then we see a bit of Tonya’s career as a celebrity boxer spitting blood all over the ring. Ah, finally she’s found an arena that lets her release her rage. But then, stupidly, the movie cuts to footage of the real Tonya skating, and we see, through the context of the life we’ve just watched, the aggression and fury in Tonya’s movements, the fierce determination, the itchy underclass energy that the upper-class skating establishment was never going to be able to accept.Tonya quite elegantly and wordlessly speaks for herself in this footage, and leaves the callow jeering movie in her dust.
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