Given how much Nathaniel Rogers has been trashing this movie -- basically implying that anyone who doesn't think it's objectively awful can't possibly be trusted on anything -- I went into this wondering if it had been overhyped by festival audiences. But I'm more in line with the early reviews, and think that as a piece of entertainment, a lot of people will get a kick out of this. It's not at the level of To Die For, but its similar sense of nasty black comedy puts it at least within striking distance.
While it doesn't go as far as The Big Short in terms of finding inventively funny ways to tell its story, the movie still manages to pull out a lot of hyperactive stops -- on-camera interviews, split screens, direct-to-camera addresses, time jumbling, contradictory narratives -- to keep its plot buzzing along. The film definitely goes for outrageous laughs at times, but I also thought it grounded its story in human drama as well, with heartbreak and violence played for real pathos and pain even amidst the broad humor. This is a story about class in the United States, about a girl who believed in an American Dream that told her if she worked hard enough, she could rise above her station, but who was consistently kept down by a system that never gave her a fair shot. The movie doesn't absolve Tonya Harding of her own clear failings, but positions them within a culture that was happy to use her as a villain for long enough to get great ratings, then dispose of her and move on to the next big story. ("I thought being famous was going to be fun" might be the most poignant throwaway line in the movie.)
Oddly, the weakest section of the film is the depiction of the event that justifies its entire existence -- the Harding/Kerrigan scandal. For me, this was the portion that didn't quite balance the seriousness and humor as well as other sections -- some of it plays like a hijinxy version of a crime movie where Things Go Very Bad -- and I also think some of the character motivations are a little muddy here. But it had me thinking about how this event became such a huge news story for something kind of irrelevant. I'm old enough to remember how momentous a media story it was -- after the '92 election of Bill Clinton, it's the first bit of news I can recall following -- but I don't think you could argue it had any real meaningful cultural impact beyond its own inherent drama. (In contrast, the O.J. Simpson trial right around the corner, which this movie smartly incorporates in one scene as a contrasting parallel, had far more momentous implications both for individual lives, and race and gender issues in American society.) All of this is to say, I think it's to the filmmakers' credit that they are able to mine an event that feels like something out of a silly soap opera for material that highlights some decently compelling social issues.
But the movie's top area of achievement has to be the two actresses. This is clearly Margot Robbie's leap to the big leagues, and I can't imagine she'll be viewed as just a pretty bombshell any longer. She's got a totally meaty part, and shows a ton of range, nailing the comic moments effortlessly, and knocking a whole bunch of dramatic beats (putting on her makeup before the Olympics, her breakdown in the courtroom) out of the park. Allison Janney is less of a surprise -- we're accustomed to her enlivening plenty of movies and TV shows -- but I don't think she's ever had a film part this good, and she manages to make her character a thoroughly horrible monster mother while also letting moments of humanity sneak through. (I love the way she tries to fight cracking a smile when Tonya makes the Olympic team.)
One tiny nitpicky thing: I'm sure the movie probably didn't have a huge budget for this kind of stuff, but there is some wonky CGI in the skating sequences -- in some shots it's painfully obvious that Robbie's face has been plastered onto a stunt double's body.
Oh, and if Mister Tee hates the biopic trend of images of the real people popping up in the credits, I, Tonya goes one step further: it showcases film clips of everyone, so you can see how perfectly the actors are imitating these folks!