Think of I, Tonya, a funny docu-dramedy of the most notorious figure skater in the history of the sport, as a stepchild of the 1990 Martin Scorsese epic Goodfellas. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) borrows liberally from Scorsese's style, as characters look directly into the camera and unleash their own version of the truth, while a pulsating classic rock soundtrack frames the manic pace.
"America... well, they want someone to love, but they also want someone to hate," says Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie in a sure-bet Oscar-nominated performance). "And those haters? They always said, 'Tonya, tell the truth.' Well, there's no such thing as the truth. I mean, the truth is bullshit."
Tonya Harding's rags-to-riches-to-rags life story is so crazy, it seems like bullshit, indeed. She grew up dirt-poor, chopping wood, skinning rabbits and winning figure skating competitions in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She gained global infamy after being implicated in an attack on her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan weeks before the 1994 Olympic winter games, and then facing-off during the games in Lillehammer, Norway, against a still-convalescing Kerrigan in what was dubbed SkateGate—an event watched by a U.S. television audience of 126 million. Harding was formally charged with conspiracy in the weeks following the Olympics.
With tongue firmly in-cheek, I, Tonya begins with a caveat: "This movie is based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly."
Gillooly (a star-making performance from Sebastian Stan) became equally infamous when he was convicted and sent to prison for masterminding the kneecap attack on Kerrigan.
"Did you know that if you bash someone in the kneecap now, they say you 'Gillooly' them?" he says to the camera. "So, that's kinda cool."
Harding and Gillooly were awful, but the queen of mean in I, Tonya is Harding's mother LaVona, played to the hellish hilt by Allison Janney (another certain Oscar nominee). Throughout the film, when Harding says one thing to the camera and Gillooly chimes in with his two cents, LaVona is close behind, wearing a terrible rabbit fur coat, hooked up to an oxygen tank and sucking on a cigarette while an ear-nipping parakeet perches on her shoulder. Janney steals nearly every scene in I, Tonya, even when she's off screen for a few short minutes.
"Well, my story line is disappearing right now," she complains. "What the fuck?"
The story of Tonya Harding is so cruel, so unsophisticated and so tragic, there were hundreds ways I, Tonya could have gone sideways as a comedy. It never does, but a word of caution: This film is strictly for those who find humor in the darkest corners. Tonya never got the gold, but I bet I, Tonya will still find gold at the Oscars.