Daily Archives: February 28, 2020

I, Tonya (2017)

*. At the end of the 2010s, with the cresting of the #MeToo movement, a couple of famous names from the 1990s resurfaced, apparently seeking some kind of retroactive absolution or apology. One was Monica Lewinsky and the other Tonya Harding.
*. I could have happily lived without hearing anything more about either woman. Neither struck me, then or now, as being victims, except perhaps for the media piling on. But here we are with Tonya (Margot Robbie) looking into the camera and blaming us for her downfall and abuse: “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”
*. It’s a false note. This is the problem with the victim narrative: however honestly it may be held, it’s never long before the victim wants something from us. Sympathy. Exoneration. Restitution. Something.

*. As critics pointed out, this was not the real Tonya Harding story. Which is fine. Every biopic shades the truth somewhat. What’s interesting is the way they shape the story here. The script sets out to present Harding as being a pure American. “Tonya was totally American,” her coach tells us at the beginning, setting the tone. She may be white trash, but she’s the real deal. What the judges want, however, is something phoney. Hence the scenes, all of them apparently fictional, where Tonya upbraids them for their snootiness and hypocrisy. Such scenes get us on her side. She may not be truthful, but she’s authentic. Which counts. Also being a scrapper counts. Audiences had cheered for Rocky, and hadn’t he gone around breaking people’s thumbs?
*. Now if we can put all that (meaning the real Tonya Harding story) aside, what can we say about I, Tonya? In the first place, it’s a movie that lets you know it’s a movie. Characters talk to the camera, and you almost have the sense that they’d be doing so even if they weren’t being filmed. They like playing roles. It’s just that they’ve mistaken the genre. The heavies here are all leftover rubes and morons from a Coen Brothers movie, with Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt stealing the show as the main comic relief.
*. Allison Janney got heaps of praise for her turn as Tonya’s mom LaVona, but it seems a totally one-dimensional role to me, not much more than what Hauser is called to do as Eckardt. I don’t see where Janney ever has to present any kind of nuance or shading to the character. She’s a tough woman who wants to raise her daughter to be a fighter. The rest is just comedy.
*. Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly barely registers, either as a bad, violent man or as a sad sack “gardener” who nurtures Tonya’s flower. This leads to one of the more frustrating things about I, Tonya. In brief: what does Tonya see in such a guy? Is she just using him? For what? The very thinnest veneer of respectability perhaps. But then does Tonya want the very all-American bourgeois family life that she also despises? What’s behind the mask of her face, whether it’s the rigid smile of her performance or the mugshot-like makeup sequence before her final skate?

*. Something more might have been done to develop this paradox. But despite a fine performance from Margot Robbie (who is fashioning a career out of being very good in bad movies) I thought the film settled for a Tonya Harding that was something less than the sum of all the forces acting on her. Despite flashes of self-awareness one gets the sense that she’s really not that different from the people she’s surrounded by. She’s greedy, violent, and not very bright. “You fuck dumb,” her mother explains to her at one point. “You don’t marry dumb.” But dumb is as dumb does, and it can’t be redeemed.
*. There’s a lot of music, and music supervisor Susan Jacobs chose tracks that were “warm,” and “powerful and full,” figuring that “classic rock songs filled the picture without getting in the way of the story.” Fair enough, I suppose, but why are so few of the tunes from the actual period? Almost all the music we hear is from the 1970s. Were tracks from the ’90s not distant enough to be treated with the requisite irony?
*. I’ve mentioned the Coen Brothers and the abiding problem with I, Tonya is one that it shares with some of their work. Aren’t we really laughing at a class of people here? As much as Tonya might want to turn things around at the end, she remains the butt of the joke. Seeing the actual footage of her dancing over the end credits is the only really sad moment, which makes you wonder if there wasn’t a more meaningful story to tell. If not tragic then at least something to regret.