Toronto: Surprisingly funny biopic 'I, Tonya,' starring Margot Robbie, attempts to reshape disgraced skater's legacy

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. (Photo: Toronto International Film Festival)

Tonya Harding is a punch line and she knows it. But she’ll no doubt be pleased with the new biopic I, Tonya, which debuted Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival to surprising howls of laughter and strong reviews.

Very little was known about the Craig Gillespie-directed film before its world premiere, but the combination of its tabloid subject and increasingly in-demand star (Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad actress Margot Robbie) made it one of Toronto’s hottest tickets.

And, well, the first thing to know about the movie is this: It’s a dark comedy told in mockumentary fashion, with characters speaking directly to the camera and oftentimes breaking the fourth wall. As the Lars and the Real Girl filmmaker teases in the opening slate, the film is based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews.

Like a seedier, more profane spin on a Christopher Guest faux doc, the film intersperses the talking heads of Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and bodyguard (Shawn Eckhardt) with reenactments of the prodigy’s upbringing and skating career, all of course leading up to “The Incident”: the brutal assault on Harding’s Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

The film aims hard for laughs, and often lands them with the precision of a triple axel — especially anytime Janney appears on screen. The West Wing actress is a foulmouthed force of nature, damn near stealing the whole movie, and if there’s any justice in the movie world she’ll earn her first Oscar nomination for the triumph. But the film is so stuffed with one-liners that the comedy becomes both a feature and a bug. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.

And despite Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers’s tendency to mock the various “boobs” that inhabit their story, there’s no mistaking where they stand on Harding.

This is a film that in many ways angles to reshape the disgraced athlete’s legacy by laying out the full context of her life story. With the Australian Robbie in full command of Harding’s lower-class roots in Portland, Ore., she’s painted in sympathetic, if not loving, strokes.

Actor Margot Robbie arrives for the screening of I, Tonya during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Sept. 8, 2017. (Photo: Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

We watch as the joyless and abusive LaVona forces her into training at the tender age of 3, telling the skeptical Rawlinson that she’s “a soft 4.” The abuse only gets worse when a young Harding falls into a relationship with and ultimately marries Gallooly, a man with a terrible mustache and worse mean streak who beats her mercilessly.

Harding’s fortunes finally begin to change after she makes history by becoming the first U.S. female ever to land the difficult triple axel. But even after attaining international prominence, she’s constantly at odds with judges and committees for not portraying the “wholesome” American image that’s expected of female skaters. She was the sport’s equivalent of Eminem in 8 Mile, but Rabbit never had to impress stuffy clipboard carriers to excel at his craft.

We shouldn’t spoil any details of the film’s portrayal of the infamous attack, but you can probably guess how the story treats Harding’s knowledge of it and her involvement. Kerrigan, meanwhile, is a footnote — at least as a flesh-and-blood character — but she hardly gets much sympathy from the filmmakers.

Harding, the film posits, was an underdog whose only mistake was surrounding herself with the wrong people.

In the eyes of I, Tonya, Harding is more folk hero than joke zero.

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