Naked on piles of money in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” popping in for a brief explanatory cameo in “The Big Short,” the Australian-born actress Margot Robbie has had several close cinematic encounters with a distinct brand of peppy, fact-based cynicism. It’s the tone, fashionable these days in black comedies about how messed up our American priorities are, that says: This is funny. No it isn’t! But it is! SMACK! Quit laughing!
The streak continues with the new Tonya Harding biopic “I, Tonya.” With a less compelling lead performance, the movie’s dodgy limitations and flashy, facile editing and cross-cutting might’ve proven insufferable.
But Robbie, in the role of the disgraced Olympian competitive figure skater, glides past the drawbacks, as surely as she made “Suicide Squad” a little less awful every time she reentered the plot. She’s not alone in “I, Tonya.” As Harding’s fearsome mother, the crucible in which the champion skater’s killer instinct was forged, Allison Janney brings her own deadly instincts to the project.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” the undervalued “The Finest Hours”) cover four decades in Harding’s harsh, bright, bizarre life. The most famous incident in that life occurred in 1994. In advance of the Olympic games in Lillehammer, Harding’s teammate Nancy Kerrigan suffered a knee-capping while coming off the practice ice in Detroit. The perpetrators included Harding’s ex-bodyguard (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and, to a debatable degree, Harding’s on-again, off-again husband/boyfriend/abuser Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
The second half of “I, Tonya” sidelines Harding, even as it deals with the incident that turned her into a punchline. The first half is more interesting and less familiar, as it lays the groundwork for Harding as a relatable sort of martyr, a victim of figure skating’s snobbery and class prejudice. What good was a hardscrabble Oregon tough like Harding to the image of this particular and traditionally princessy sport? The judges, her peers, the entire world seemed to have it in for her. Yet for millions, those triple axels were astonishing, and the ZZ Top song selections were a nice change. In “I, Tonya” Robbie does some of her own skating, the tough stuff finessed digitally and with doubles, but it’s quite seamless.
Here’s an example of the movie’s tone. The key characters speak to the camera in the present day, reflecting on and often correcting contradictory accounts of Harding’s marriage and the punchline incident. “I never did this!” Stan protests to us, as the movie is showing Harding’s account of Gillooly threatening her with a shotgun.
A short, sharp shock of a moment, such as Harding’s mother hitting young Tonya for some perceived slight or infraction, is immediately counterweighed by a shot of the older Janney, muttering a denial years later to the camera.
The zigzags and back-and-forths make it an easy movie to watch; the rhythm and pacing is cannily relentless. Only later do you question some of the methods, and wonder if there’s an innate hypocrisy in the way “I, Tonya” scores laughs off its unlucky or venal characters before reminding us they’re people, too.
The class prejudice against Harding continued in the courtroom. “I, Tonya” ventures past an empathetic portrait of this woman into transforming her into a mythic anti-heroine, whose warrior spirit cannot be vanquished. It’s all there in the mock heroics of the title, riffing on “I, Claudius.”
Thanks to Robbie, you go with it. As for Janney: Hers is a performance of such astute, subtle and compulsively watchable hamming, it’s guaranteed to win a supporting actress Oscar nomination.
Robbie’s probably a cinch as well.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
"I, Tonya" -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)
Running time: 2:01