Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review: I, TONYA

Ok, young woman beats the odds, frees herself from an oppressive stage mother, survives the violence of a marriage and achieves athletic greatness. But the story doesn't end there. There was a crushing decline in performance and a public image that worked against her. And there was an infamous incident which implicated her in the serious injury of a rival which effectively aborted her career. She says that she went from being loved to being hated to being a punchline.

The ways into a historical story like this are many and the one chosen is by now one that borders on the cloyingly familiar: the mockumentary. To-camera testimony, action contradicted by voice-over by a whole cast of unreliable narrators, a strangely 70s-heavy jukebox source score, and a reliance on the unintentional comedy from rednecks bearing overblown witness or just sounding clueless as they evade personal responsibility. More on that later.

A bright pallette and a mix of staged interviews and sudden fourth wall breaks in dramatised scenes let you know that these filmmakers know their 90s and onward mockos like To Die For, American Hustle or Bernie. So do we but here, mercifully, we have some deviation. Not a hell of a lot but some and that is more than the usual.

The thread of Tonya Harding's career from childhood to Olympic competition is told with great energy and colour. The scenes in the rink of Harding in her most assured and adrenal context are thrilling. The encroachment of the various ugly edges of her life into this is also strong, waiting there in the dressing room and the corridors backstage. The precarious joints of her early marriage with its sudden, ugly violence is given a hand-held veracity. Every scene with her mother carries a dreadful weight. And through all of this the central strength of Harding develops to create a tough survivor.

But there are things that threaten the solidity of this core and they aren't pretty. The radio fodder on the soundtrack is 70s rather than 90s to suggest the kind of hits and memories that are good 'nuff fer rednecks. Elsewhere dramatic intros of things like Heart's Barracuda are used in lieu of scored music. This variously works and feels old hat. At its worst it sneers. And really, if you want to make a point about the cultural snobbery affecting the central character's career why risk expressing that snobbery? And what exactly is the point of a title card pleading that the film's sources include the "irony free" interviews of Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly, if not to invite us to laugh on cue?

The middle act drags as it attempts explanation of the miscommunication between the players that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and mires us in a fog of unreliable testimony. This is intentional but it is savoured until it is oppressive and energy sapping. It also burdens the running time.

This film could healthily lose a good thirty minutes. That's partly due to the mishandling of the central information miasma in the middle act but also partly due to a reluctance to murder a few darlings. Bobby Cannavale's role as tabloid tv reporter from the time adds nothing to the account that we don't already get from the well placed bites of contemporary media accounts. He does look very box-tickingly quirky and the proceedings would breathe a little better without his soliloquies.

But this is a film of performances and, boy, do we get performances. Margot Robbie gives a solid electric centre with her short fused rage which even in maturity seethes with resentment. She gives us, through this maelstrom, the genuine exhilaration of the athlete who can forget all of her life's pain in the awesome flowing of her talent. She seems to give her character the break that the filmmakers did not afford. Staring out of the screen, almost filling it, applying gaudy makeup for her Olympic performance we don't need the information to explain the tears she cannot resist. It is a striking moment of sheer cinema.

Alison Janney delivers everything that this role that was written for her demands. From a younger mother to the dead bark crone of the present day she pumps into what might have been a one note portrait, the anger and contempt of someone incapable of seeing past the hurdles and the setbacks of her life. Like a stage mum imagined by Edward Albee she rages, cuts, slashes and burns every sentient thing around her, claiming the empire of her personal space and rendering it inviolable. The tiny glints of pride in her daughter's successes Janney allows through are drily private. Along with Tonya, her toxic resentment of the universe she was given, hardens her every line. Unlike the CGI that Robbie needed to emulate her character's sporting prowess, Janney's interplay with a real parrot is quietly stunning.

The rest of the cast cannot compete with these performances, everyone does a fine job, sometimes against the material, but I will mention Paul Walter Hauser. His sustained grating turn as the often disturbingly delusional Shawn is saved from being one note by the sheer ugly mystery his mental workings must call home. Again, we get the rednecks card as he emits such bizarre garbage guaranteed for laughs until we think back and realise that it is these very warped notions that might have done most to motivate the violence on Nancy Kerrigan.

What survives the shortcomings of the filmmakers, however, is a commitment to the theme of blame placing and its corrosive power. In a way this is a kind of Amadeus for our times as we, the non-famous audience, witness the struggle of greatness to burst through only to be constantly nibbled the very mediocrity that everyone on screen and in front of must avoid simply in order to keep living. It is simple notions like this that allow the triumphs of this film to pass through its wall of avowed cleverness (I, Tonya, indeed!). Go for Margot and Alison. They will not disappoint.

PS - Why, oh why, do we still have to suffer big endnotes telling us that this one is happily married and that one never strangled another chicken? This was only interesting once, when done in American Graffiti, a work of fiction from the ground up. It's 2018 and there is Google!

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