Backwoods Barbies: ‘I, Tonya’

I have a foreboding that the next three years smart aleck producers, with the same glee as newspaper editors sending reporters into southern Indiana or West Virginia coal country, will approve movies about Trump’s America, or, as grim a development, critics will tag movies as Examinations of Trump’s America when actors use corn pone accents. But a Hilary Clinton victory in November 2016 would not have made I, Tonya any less awful a viewing experience. Condescending, shrieking, and dull, I, Tonya re-visits an episode in early nineties pop culture that no one remembers and doesn’t deserve reenactment: the plot to cripple Olympic prospect Nancy Kerrigan hatched by the husband of rival Tonya Harding. This cruel picture thinks it’s smarter than the dummies it mocks.

Purporting to be a rube Rashomon but in pseudo-documentary format, I, Tonya depends on the contradictory accounts of the title character and husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan in a sad palooka mustache). But their stories agree on the scrappiness of her early life. Egged on by her villainous, emphysemic mother LaVona (Allison Janney), the young Tonya has a childhood consisting of skating lessons and abuse, verbal and otherwise. Yet she is a genuine talent on the rink, particularly when doing the triple axel, and it’s not many years later that she starts looking like a comer. As a result, she develops a robust self-importance. Whether she acts as a product of her dumb-hick background or a young woman striving to transcend it, director Craig Gillespie gives her no credit for the latter. This is the kind of movie in which Tonya shoots a rabbit and Gillespie cuts to Tonya skating, as if to say, now here’s a killer.

The rest of I, Tonya follows the schematics of what the public read about: Tonya may or may not have directed the attack on rival/doppelgänger  Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver); Tonya may or may not have fought back when Gillolly hits her; the scheme to take out Kerrigan may or may not have been the most stupendously amateurish in the history of stupendously amateurish schemes. Steven Rogers’ script spends too much time depicting how the conspirators flip. Tonya’s story gets lost. According to Gillespie’s treatment of the Rogers script, Tonya isn’t a person anyway — she’s a collection of backwoods clichés, suitable for the tut-tutting of urban audiences. Stuck playing a combination of Tracy Flick and Clueless’ Cher, Margot Robbie can do neither; thus, she makes obvious behavioral choices (Elizabeth Olsen in Ingrid Goes West is a recent example of an actor smartly playing a not very bright person whose ambitions compensate). Janney, an expert at vinegary types, does no better playing this malicious mommy; chainsmoking is her character’s prop, a signifier of bad lifestyle decisions, so the performance consists of rasping through smoke and waving a Bronco.

Audiences couldn’t have known that I, Tonya opens during the same season as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another putatively comedic look at malevolent small town types in which the director can’t hide his contempt for the characters he’s created. It’s okay to write about or make a movie about contemptible people so long as the script and cast don’t line up for the firing squad. I despised how Martin McDonagh’s movie flirted with endorsing vigilantism only to pull the carpet at the last minute, letting the audience off the hook.  I disliked I, Tonya less but it’s a shoddier piece of filmmaking, isn’t riven by the same tensions. Also, it’s two hours. If I concede that, yes, someone could make a decent movie out of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan, then let Netflix produce the mini-series.


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