We have a weird fascination with human garbage. By “we” I mean humanity. I’m sure it’s always existed to a degree, but it feels like we really kicked it into high gear in the 1990s. The O.J. Simpson trial led America into its train-wreck obsession and gave birth to the concept of people being famous for shockingly little, i.e. the Kato Kaelin principle. Americans took their fascination for human garbage up a notch to give us long-term love affairs with Paris Hilton and the Kardashians and whoever the hell Amber Rose is.
Tonya Harding might be the First Lady of American Garbage—the mother of our trailer-park monarchy. For those who still were sperm in the early 1990s, Harding was a talented figure-skater whose Olympic dreams involved a plot to take out a competitor by breaking her knee with a baton. It led to an FBI investigation and, ultimately, the arrest and conviction of several accomplices. It was the largest scandal in the history of female figure-skating, which up until that point had been the “Geena’s wearing lavender chiffon with mustard-yellow highlights” kerfuffle at the 1988 Montreal Games.
“I, Tonya” is a marginally entertaining story about Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and the other pieces of poor white trash that inhabited the flaming dumpster of her existence. Please, note, I am not calling them white trash like some kind of East Coast elite looking down upon them. If “I, Tonya” is a canvas, white trash is the color that director Craig Gillespie painted. It is a darkly comic romp that tries a little too hard to portray our trashy ensemble as both heartbreaking and hilarious. And it kind of works—sometimes.
We meet young Tonya Harding and her hellacious acid-spewing mother Lavonna (Allison Janney). She plays the kind of wretched crazy that makes her seem almost inhuman—a crazy, wiry, wrinkled cauldron of anger with a bad haircut. She sees raw talent in Tonya and begins to seek out a figure-skating coach. Tonya’s tumultuous childhood soon becomes her tumultuous teenage years. She’s an angry, driven competitor, with a ridiculously short fuse, and desperate to find her way out of the constricting, emotionally destructive relationship with her mother.
Then she meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan), a charismatic creeper who ends up infesting her life like an earworm with a bad mustache. They are the very definition of dysfunction: He’s perpetually abusive and she’s desperate for validation. It’s a strange and baffling dynamic that always feels wrong, even when things are going well.
Tonya faces a great deal of adversity within the figure-skating community. She is an exceptional skater but lacks the finesse of her competitors. They refuse to give her any recognition, in spite of her superior skills. Tonya handles any adversity in her life with clenched teeth and fists. The fire is supposed to fuel her to success, but it rarely leads her anywhere productive. Her arc in the movie reminded me of the film “A River Runs Through It.” Brad Pitt’s character is this master fly fisherman who couldn’t extend the grace into other aspects of his life. Tonya has the same problem; she is utter precision on the ice and an absolute disaster everywhere else.
I enjoyed a lot of “I, Tonya.” There are great performances, but they are cartoonish in execution. I thought I was watching some really good actors do very entertaining impressions of white trash—like a more tame version of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.” But none of it ever felt real. Even though it is based on a true story, the dark comedy and hilarious buffoonery feels unreal. The actual interview footage they base the fourth-wall-breaking segments on is far more mind-blowing than the recreations.
There’s definite entertainment value in “I, Tonya”—moments of pure, ridiculous hilarity that sometimes feel a little too self-aware. It’s like the movie is a life-sized joke, and the cast and crew are in on it. None of it is particularly respectful, and given the source material, I understand why. As I watched the film, I began to question its point. The movie makes fun of people, circumstances and stupidity of a real-life incident.
Like “The Disaster Artist,” “I, Tonya” involves a lot of people doing good impressions but it’s nowhere near as entertaining as the real-life people they are trying to recreate. There’s no added layer and nothing new added by the fictional adaptation. So what exactly is the point?