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.

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