This might be the perfect time for a Tonya Harding biopic … or rather, a Harding “biopic,” one set some 23 years after the public’s memory of the tabloid diva having drilled down to “white-trash figure skater who had something to do with smashing the knee of her rival Nancy Kerrigan during training for the 1994 Winter Olympics.” I, Tonya – a raunchy, demented, dark-comic dazzler, snappily directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) from an anything-goes script by Steven Rogers, gives Tonya (Margot Robbie in her best performance yet) a chance to prove her almost-innocence.
The film uses recreated interviews with those closest to the disgraced Olympian – felons and family members alike – who get a chance to speak up. The talking-heads lineup includes: her violent ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); his idiot cohort, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser); her purportedly sane skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson); and her demon mother from the hottest spot in Hades, LaVona Golden, played by a dead-solid-perfect Allison Janney as a cross between Marge Simpson and Attila the Hun. Who’s telling the truth? According to Harding, “There’s no such thing as truth – I mean, it’s all bullshit.”
Maybe so. But watching these National Enquirer fugitives mix it up in a rush of sleazoid slapstick will leave your head spinning. Robbie turns her features hard – and her attitude harder – to play the queen of the triple axel. She never begs for sympathy, though we give it willingly thanks to the pow of the star’s take on Harding as a woman who refuses to be a punchline. And Janney is her match, a mother whose tenderest advice to her daughter about marrying Gillooly is, “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”
You won’t find that on a Hallmark card, and you won’t find sentiment to dull the edge off the abuse and exploitation that marked the skater’s formative years. The movie cuts deeper, holding a mirror up to the class-conscious America most of us tend to ignore or dismiss – and makes us see ourselves reflected in it, too. I, Tonya is funny as hell, but the pain is just as real. You’ll laugh till it hurts.