The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I, Tonya

Which is more unlikely: that Tonya Harding almost became an Olympic contender, or that someone made a movie about her in 2017? Maybe there's no answer to that question. Maybe there doesn't even need to be one. I, Tonya is a film you wouldn't expect to exist, about a woman you wouldn't expect to find in the polished, borderline-snooty world of competitive ice skating. That surprising quality accounts for part of the movie's success. A bigger part is that it in no way takes the approach to its central figure that you would expect.

Margot Robbie stars as Harding, a young woman raised by a tough-as-nails single mother, LaVona Gordon (Allison Janney), in a blue-collar town. The movie briefly tracks her beginnings as a child skater, forced into the sport by her mom, who goes above and beyond in the “You'll Do What I Tell You To Do” department. Then it jumps ahead to Tonya as a young woman, ice dancing to non-traditional music and wearing homemade costumes that appall the judges. What she has working in her favor is some serious talent, which allows her to keep advancing closer to the Olympics, despite not fitting the stereotypical image of a figure skater.

During this time, she marries Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a dim bulb of a guy who's alternatively doting and abusive. Wanting to give his wife an edge as she comes closer to the Olympics, he conspires with his delusional buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to put a tiny bit of fear into Tonya's main rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Their scheme goes out of control, with a hired goon bashing Kerrigan in the knee with a pipe and subsequently flushing all of them down the tabloid media toilet.

The mesmerizing thing about the Tonya Harding story is that everyone around her was 1.) stupid; and 2.) kind of a redneck (for lack of a more politically correct term). Combining those qualities would seem to promise a condescending comedy full of cheap shots and easy laughs. I, Tonya is so not that movie, thank goodness. While the story doesn't shy away from depicting the sheer idiocy that led to the whole sordid affair, it takes pains not to exaggerate things. They were exaggerated enough, so director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) and writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) only have to stick true to the reality of the situation to earn big laughs, which is exactly what they do.

More than that, I, Tonya remains sympathetic to the woman at its center. Although not entirely innocent, Harding was surrounded by people who claimed to be acting in her best interests, when they were really acting in their own. She had to focus on doggedly perusing her dream, as well as keeping tabs on her family and friends. It was too much. Bad influences around her ended up derailing the gold medal goal after sucking her in. The film shows, with comic richness and a strangely tragic quality, how this happened.

If playing Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad gave Margot Robbie the role that launched her to mainstream stardom, playing Tonya Harding may well vault her into the ranks of A-list actresses. She's sensational, capturing an often contradictory mix of character traits. Her Tonya is fierce yet vulnerable, naive yet shrewd, profane yet accomplished. In his classic poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” The Tonya Harding in I, Tonya also contains multitudes, and Robbie brings every single one of them to life, earning empathy along the way.

Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser provide strong supporting work. The other truly key player, though, is Allison Janney. If you remember LaVona Gordon, you know that she was almost like a caricature from a movie. For that reason, portraying her onscreen has the obvious pitfall of, well, being a caricature. Janney deftly avoids that, recreating the woman's larger-than-life personality while still making her feel like an actual human being, as opposed to a cartoon. The actress drops wicked one-liners with glee, helping us understand why Tonya never stood a chance of fitting into the wholesome skating image with someone like this as a role model.

I, Tonya is a riveting, impressively detailed, frequently hilarious look at a unique form of American idiocy – namely, the misguided belief that it's easy to get away with bad behavior when the spotlight is shining on or near you. Even in the early '90s, a few years before the internet changed life as we know it, everyone was watching, and a hungry media monster was desperate to be fed. The movie documents how a group of imbeciles triggered the mechanism that made the world pay attention, and how a woman who just wanted to excel at skating paid the price.

( out of four)

I, Tonya is rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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