March 3, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: I, TONYA

Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlyn Carver, Ricky Russert. Directed by Craig Gillespie. (2017/119 min).

In my neck of the woods (Portland, Oregon), former figure skater and Olympic washout Tonya Harding has become something of an urban legend. Being from our hometown, she was a constant media lightning rod even before the Nancy Kerrigan incident. Since then, reports of Tonya sightings still pop up from time to time...working as a stripper, living in a trailer by the Columbia River, etc. Like those who claim to have spotted Sasquatch, most are tall-tales. But the infrequent occasions when she does return to the local spotlight are usually under dubious circumstances.

I, Tonya, however, has everyone talking about Harding again, and not just in her hometown. Though it doesn't paint a flattering portrait, I imagine she's still grateful for the attention. After all, this woman once tried to prolong her fleeting fame by getting in the boxing ring with other has-beens. Harding may have been a public punchline for the past 25 years, but she's been a trainwreck her entire life. That's common knowledge, though, and if I, Tonya had gone the traditional bio route, we'd have gotten nothing we hadn't already seen & heard a million times.

But the fun of I, Tonya lies in its amusingly-unreliable narrators, of which Harding (Margot Robbie) is just one. Her estranged ex-husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan) has a say, as does Tonya's vindictive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), her dumbass "bodyguard," Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), and even tabloid TV producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale). They are consistently contradicting each other's version of events leading up to and surrounding the infamous assault on Nancy Kerrigan (who's merely an incidental character here).

"Would you please stop calling me Bucky?"
I, Tonya makes no pretense of being an authentic biography, nor is anything presented as indisputable fact. The entire narrative intentionally keeps us questioning the validity of every scene, with its suspicious characters presented as amalgams of their real-life counterparts and exaggerated caricatures. Though Harding herself is the de-facto protagonist (an unfortunate product of her environment), none of these folks are particularly likable. But neither was anyone in Goodfellas, to which this film is often stylistically compared.

Tonya smells cookies.
Like Scorsese's classic, I, Tonya is a flamboyant, whirlwind tale of a life spiraling out of control, featuring characters who are as unpleasant as they are stupid, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless. Robbie is arguably too pretty to be completely convincing as the title character, especially with Harding being more instantly recognizable than Henry Hill ever was. But since the film makes no claims of historical accuracy, it remains a remarkable performance. Trumping even Robbie, though, is Janney, who makes LaVona one of the most hateful antagonists I've recently seen who doesn't actually kill anyone. These two ladies have garnered so much critical praise that Sebastian Stan's efforts have largely gone unheralded. However, he's effective as both an amusingly dimwitted rube and despicably abusive spouse (or is he?).

Punctuated by a killer soundtrack, I, Tonya is a fast-moving, darkly comic spin on one of the most notorious scandals in sports history. If you're looking for the straight story, forget about it. We've already had enough of that, anyway (especially here in Portland). What the film does do is creatively re-imagine the circus - and its clowns - that surrounded the incident in the first place. Watching a living trainwreck has seldom been this much fun.

FEATURETTES: "All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya"; "Irony Free, Totally True: The Story Behind I, Tonya"; "Working with Director Craig Gillespie"; "The Visual Effects of I, Tonya" (which are actually quite amazing); "VFX: Anatomy of a Triple Axel" (ditto)
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Craig Gillespie

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