Neon. 2017. Comedy. 121 minutes.
RATING: 4 angels
When Terry Southern helped Stanley Kubrick transform his intended Cold War drama into a bitter, biting satire, bringing together two of the most original talents of the 1960s, few could have fathomed that 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would inaugurate an entirely new form of American screen comedy. After all, there was nothing about the film’s sensibilities that was that far different from Southern’s essays – part of a literary continuüm with roots as far back as the American Revolution. Neither was the film entirely disconnected from Kubrick’s previous film, a serio-comedic adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s taboo-shattering Lolita that brilliantly deployed comedic misdirection to slip its controversial subject matter past the obtuse gatekeepers of the Production Code. But Strangelove was a quantum leap beyond – something vastly different than boilerplate black comedy that dared to tackle the most terrifying subject of the day – nuclear annihilation – by irreverently mocking absolutely everyone and everything connected to it. The unexpectedly cathartic mass exhale that greeted the film proved as much a shock to audiences as to everyone else, releasing decades of pent-up self-serious steam, thereby enabling people to see, with exacting clarity, precisely the real nature of the threat and the absurdity of everyone’s reaction to it. Some eight months later, when Sidney Lumet’s dramatic variation on the same story, Failsafe, entered theaters, it earned little more than a comparative whimper. Strangelove had stolen its thunder and revealed the more telling truths. Kubrick and Southern never again worked together, and neither of them was ever again able to separately replicate the effort, though Kubrick would continue to mine a similar comedic cynicism in such films as A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. Nevertheless, the road was paved and the path prepared for countless more such pictures, including, in recent decades, the memorable Oscar-nominated successes of To Die For (1995) and American Hustle (2013).
To do justice to I, Tonya, the brilliant new comedy from Australian director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and journeyman screenwriter Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Love the Coopers), it’s essential to understand the pedigree from which they are operating. While there’s nothing about the 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan figure skating assault scandal that even remotely approaches the gravity of atomic war, murder or ABSCAM-style racketeering and corruption (the actual crime itself is something of a clinic in boneheaded ineptitude), what Rogers and Gillespie have smartly perceived is the degree to which the affair and its participants represent something broader and deeper – a ravaging class divide which many aspects of American society, including and especially certain élite athletics, both exploit and encourage, excluding vast portions of the population from any hope of bettering their lot through no fault but the misfortune of their birth.
Reluctantly railroaded into figure skating at a young age by her profane hellcat of a mother (Allison Janney), Harding’s (played as a child by McKenna Grace) hardscrabble, blue-collar approach to the most refined of athletics proves an uncomfortable fit, both for her and for the sport’s guardians. Nevertheless, her talent is indisputable and by the time she’s 15 (played henceforth by Margot Robbie) she’s a force to be reckoned with, headed toward almost certain Olympic glory and threatening to shatter a veneer of elitism which skating’s gatekeepers regard as an essential component of its success and appeal. The rink drama, however, is but the least interesting part of the story. The madcap dysfunctionality of Harding’s private life – characterized mainly as a tug-of-war between tough-as-nails mother LaVona and bumbling failure of a husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) – is the real center ring attraction here. The film’s persuasive suggestion is that whatever transpires on the ice or in the Olympics is merely a manifestation of the insanity transpiring behind closed doors.
Presumably based on interviews with all key participants, I, Tonya very amusingly cries uncle right at the outset, conceding that since the filmmakers don’t much trust anyone’s version of events, they’re going to hurl the whole contradictory mess on the screen for audiences to make up their own minds. Liberally breaking the fourth wall so as to let Harding, Gillooly and others hang themselves, Gillespie and Rogers elect to simply have fun with the story and not take anyone too seriously lest they risk veering into polemical self-seriousness. That’s no small risk – ordinarily, satirizing something as brutal as the attack on Kerrigan would represent a fast lane to comedic catastrophe. But because the crime itself is hatched in such a clumsy, haphazard fashion, because the planning and execution are so glaringly inept, because the entire conspiracy is so impossibly bizarre, what takes shape in the end is less a comic recreation of a serious crime than a Strangelovian indictment of the audience – a mirror held up to the voyeurs lapping it all up, as if to dare them to declare themselves in any way morally superior.
The free-form storytelling employed by Rogers and Gillespie has an undeniably liberating feel – a predictable tale told in a most unconventional, unpredictable fashion that appears to free the actors as well. Robbie – whose comedic talents have never been sharper – looks nothing like Harding, but nevertheless captures the essence of a fiercely conflicted, volatile personality desperately looking for the one thing her family and success have always denied her: the chance to define herself. Stan’s Gillooly is no less impressive – equal parts loyal, loving husband and treacherous, imbecilic, racketeering scumbag. The real scene-stealer, though, is guaranteed Oscar-nominee Janney who manages to fashion one of the most bizarre real-life characters in movie history into what is simultaneously a hilarious comedic foil and a terrifying manifestation of every child’s worst nightmare parent – the hybrid tormenter/truth-teller.
Apart from some middling effects work – fairly unconvincing face-replacement in the figure skating sequences – I, Tonya has the makings of a cult classic, a quotable, side-splitting, soothsaying satire which will leave audiences reeling in the aisles, oblivious to the fact that the original assault on Kerrigan is small potatoes compared to what the filmmakers just spent two hours doing to them.