Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 16, 2017 6:36 pm 
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An ironic and brutal sports saga

I, Tonya, about the rise and fall of figure skating champion Tonya Harding, who was brought down by her husband's involvement in the plot in 1994 against her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, that led to criminal prosecution and Tonya's professional banishment, is a vivid, intensely acted, brilliantly effective comic faux documentary, full of amusing interventions by the principals and narrators that regularly break down the fourth wall. Margot Robbie (in a rich performance), as Tonya, and Allison Janney (bold and fearlessly unflattering), as her cruel and demanding helicopter mom from hell, both give Oscar-worthy performances, and other cast members are good. The film is strengthened by tight editing and efficient writing that keep our attention riveted from first to last, hanging on to see how it turns out even if we already know. But the trouble is that besides shocking us out of our skins, the movie is so tongue-in-cheek and condescending, casting a pall of class snobbism over the comedy that implicates the viewer.

It's an essential aspect of the movie that Tonya's is a story about class that, to keep the laughs coming, withholds empathy with the underdogs. It's made clear from the start that Tonya's mother, and then Tonya, are crude and foul-mouthed and aggressive people without education or manners, poor white trash, even though Tonya becomes a superb athlete in spite of it all. If you assume that physical abuse is more common to their class than to the privileged whose cruelties are more subtle, and accept the repeated assertions (and demonstrations) that the principals are not only uneducated but mindless or stupid, the implication is that events followed.

Tonya grows up being urged to success and beaten by her tippling, brown cigarette-puffing waitress mother (who dreams of her daughter'sbecoming a professional skater from when she was barely 4, when she already herself thought of nothing but skating). When Tonya marries the presentable, attractively mustached but dim-witted and weak Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) to escape he mother's brutality, she comes in for even more beatings from him, which she sometimes gives back in kind.

What seems remarkable is that in in these brutal, unloving circumstances, Tonya Harding becomes for a while one of the best figure skaters in the world, and is the first to execute the triple axel, a move that to this day only eight skaters have ever performed in competition. But she had so many strikes against her, it's not surprising, perhaps, that things went terribly wrong just when she was reaching her peak. Her mother is depicted - aside from being comically profane and vulgar in her speech, unfailingly mean and withholding - both qualities presented as comical. (The movie pointedly starts out by saying it's based on a series of "unironic" interviews: on screen, they've been thoroughly ironized.)

In addition there was no money, or rather, no wealth. It seems that as with many individual sports, figure skating is one in which success is best achieved through the provision of the best training and equipment on the way up by well-heeled parents. Tonya's mom works hard as a waitress to pay for coaching, but Tonya has to sew together her own outfits for competition. Apparently they give away their humble origins, and it seems an expensive look, as well as polished, polite personal manners, both lacking for Tonya, are essential to scoring high in skating competitions. Tonya asks repeatedly to be judged purely by her skating. But it just doesn't work that way.

The story of Tonya's rise, and disastrous environment, eventually gives way to the suspenseful reporting of "the incident." It's quite detailed. The main culprit is seen to be Jeff's obese best bud Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), also Tonya's bodyguard, so always around. He's crudely depicted as stuffing his face in every scene in which he appears in the first half. Perhaps due largely to class resentments, when Tonya has become a hopeful for the 1994 Winter Olympics Shawn and Jeff talk about sending mail threats to her co-competitor and former friend Nancy Kerrigan to frighten her and put her off her game. But it gets far worse than that.

Shawn's machinations lead to Kerrigan's being struck forcibly in the knee by a hired thug with a police baton (though she recovers from the attack in time to compete at Lillehammer, Norway). It's an assault that's immediately all over the news. The FBI becomes involved in investigating the plot to harm Kerrigan - with convictions, eventually, for Shawn, Jeff, and finally Tonya. some of the movie's most innocent fun comes in watching how clumsily Shawn and Jeff try to hide their involvement in the criminal attack. This is the kind of thing that has led I, Tonya to be dubbed "a sports 'Goodfellas.'"

Martot Robbie, who coproduced, gives an amazing performance as Tonya Harding, managing to appear both athletic, beautiful, and bruised, trading F-words and fisticuffs with mother and husband, moving from luminous to destroyed to luminous and back again. Her speech to the judge in court when he's just stripped her permanently of membership in the skating association and hence barred her forever from competition - from all she has always lived for - is heartrending, without being sentimental.

The structure and style of the movie can be seen as direct and crude, but intentionally so, and thus it carries this off, even if it leaves you with doubts about the feelings it has aroused in you. The people, however cartoonish or outlandish, still seem terribly real. Brief clips shown at the end of the movie of the real Shawn, Jeff, Tonya, and her mom tend to suggest that the actual participants in these events were flatter and less interesting than the people on screen and that this heightened version may have been the only way to tell this story entertainingly. I, Tonya certainly is entertaining, but it's a guilty pleasure. With many tour-de-force sequences in which Robbie appears to be skating in Tonya's virtuoso style.

I, Tonya, 119 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2017; ten other festival showings, with US theatrical release starting 8 Dec. 2017. Watched in a packed house at Angelika Film Center Sat. eve. 16 Dec., where the audience laughed a lot at first, then, losing its esprit de corps, stopped laughing. I heard some audience members express grave misgivings after it was over. Metacritic rating 75%. See Richard Brody's detailed review of the movie for The New Yorker on line: "the movie perpetuates the very condescension that it purports to condemn: it treats Tonya’s background, her tastes, her habits, her way of talking, as a joke."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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