“I, Tonya” re-examines the crime scene of a celebrity life

Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya,” now playing at The Charles.

“Who is Tonya Harding?” is the unspoken question at the heart of director Craig Gillespie’s darkly comic biopic, depicting the rise—and very public fall—of the two-time Olympic figure skater more renowned for her involvement in a 1994 assault on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan than her considerable professional accomplishments. Is she the ice skating super-villain the media would lead you to believe? A victim of devastating circumstances? The bruised soul searching of “I, Tonya” ultimately leans toward sympathy for its subject, zeroing in on the unfortunately very ordinary cycles of abuse that would come to define Harding’s personal and professional life.

“I, Tonya” is first and foremost an Oscar vehicle for star Margot Robbie, whose sheer screen presence lit up the back half of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and was enough to make “Suicide Squad” at least morbidly watchable. Robbie inhabits Tonya Harding from age 16 to 47, flashing between braces and a feathered perm as teenager to bad skin and weight-adding prosthetics for her modern day incarnation. It’s the kind of big performance this sort of biopic demands. She’s joined for a series of framing device testimonials by Sebastian Stan as Harding’s abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as Harding’s chain-smoking mother LaVona. These testimonials are one of the more novel inventions of “I, Tonya,” which reenact real interviews recorded for the film. It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching beautiful celebrities slumming it as aging, working-class losers in these segments but Robbie, Janney, and Stan are all talented enough performers that their occasional presence as talking heads never overstays its welcome.

The Tonya-Jeff-Mom triumvirate of “I, Tonya” is central to the film’s hard focus on Harding’s lifelong exposure to abuse, gradually morphing from her mother’s calculated stage mom cruelty to the casual physical assaults that come to define Tonya’s glue trap marriage to Gillooly. It’s a credit to everyone involved that the on-screen violence against women in “I, Tonya” never feels exploitative (even Kerrigan’s story-mandated knee injury via telescoping baton is implied rather than explicitly shown). Janney, whose performance as LeVona is garnering deserved best supporting actress buzz, portrays the elder Harding with borderline cartoonish iciness as she berates her daughter’s performances, calls her names, and tosses chairs around. It’s an over-the-top performance that really only works because Janney’s entertainingly mean LeVona is never given a pass for a lifetime of shit parenting.

Stan, most famous as Chris Evans’ sidekick-turned-murder machine frenemy Bucky Barnes in the Captain America movies, plays the caterpillar-lipped Gillooly as a kind of dopey stock Coen Brothers movie loser whose hair trigger temper threatens to pop off at any moment. Harding and Gillooly’s on-again/off-again relationship is one of the only truly three dimensional elements of “I, Tonya,” with sucker punches and angry slurs from Gillooly punctuating the couple’s rare moments of down-and-out domestic bliss. Gillooly is the kind of abusive husband rarely seen on-screen, a rail thin Ned Flanders type whose outward harmlessness is an “aw gosh” mask for truly scary monstrousness.

When it comes to Tonya herself, Robbie’s performance is by necessity much harder to pin down. Between cigarette drags, Tonya refuses responsibility for the avalanche of nightmares that defines her at-home and professional lives. When an enraged Harding throws a skate at soft-spoken/tough love mentor/coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) after a botched routine, talking head modern day Tonya reflexively exclaims, “that wasn’t my fault.” Later, Harding matter of factly suggests that a distraught, under-investigation-by-the-FBI Gillooly kill himself from behind a locked hotel room door. These are shocking moments and we as the viewer are forced to reckon with the thick emotional callouses Harding’s grown after decades of abuse, the toll that takes on even an ordinary human life.

Tonya Harding didn’t actually attack Nancy Kerrigan, the movie emphasizes, but it also never completely spells out how much she knew about the plot to intimidate Kerrigan paid for by her ex-husband-turned-manager. “I mean, come on!” an exasperated Harding begs the viewer. “What kind of friggin’ person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”

With its breakneck pace, looped bar jukebox soundtrack, and fourth-wall-shattering addresses to the audience, there’s a slight, winky slickness that pervades “I, Tonya.” Gillespie’s direction and a script from longtime romcom screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats,” “Kate & Leopold”) err toward heart-pumping music-driven skate routines that break up breathless “and then this happened” montages in an attempt to summarize the breadth and width of Harding’s life story in a single movie. “I, Tonya” is, as a result, often slight in its otherwise nuanced depiction of a complex figure.

That superficial sheen is at least somewhat appropriate, however: Figure skating is, after all, built on the immaculate artifice of routine and “I, Tonya” hinges on the foul-mouthed, dirt poor Harding’s seemingly endless struggle to present herself as the kind of family friendly ice princess judges award gold medals. Reminders of class are ever-present in “I, Tonya”—from Harding and Gillooly’s awkwardly adult-supervised first date at an all-you-can-eat buffet to Harding’s hunched over evenings sewing her own costumes and ZZ Top-scored skate routines—and suggest that the Kerrigan incident was the long-awaited excuse the perpetually nose-upturned pro skating world needed to banish square peg Harding from their uniformly circular ranks. “I, Tonya” is a tragedy, never more so when it emphasizes Harding’s futile attempts to find love and acceptance—from her mother, from her husband, from the world—that will never be returned.

So who is Tonya Harding—world famous athlete, ‘90s pop culture boogiewoman, and imperfect victim—at end of film’s two-hour-plus run time? “I, Tonya” never sits still quite long enough to give us a totally satisfying answer, but it does cut through the corny late night show jokes and 24 hour news cycle demonization just deep enough to make us question our own culpability in Tonya Harding’s now-faded notoriety. Like the film’s subject, “I, Tonya” doesn’t ever reach its fabled potential for greatness but—as beautifully captured in Robbie-as-Harding’s final bloody lipped “fuck ‘em” during a post-career celebrity boxing match—you at least have to admire its tenacity.

“I, Tonya” directed by Craig Gillespie, is now playing at The Charles Theatre.

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