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Great performances steamroll over all the flaws of 'I, Tonya'

"I, Tonya" doesn't waste a second telling you that the movie is based on "irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly."

Movie fans with good memories will hear echoes of Michael Ritchie's terrific "Positively True Adventures of the Alleged, Texas Cheerleading Murdering Mom," one of the more brilliant movies made for HBO in the 1990s.

Holly Hunter starred in that one. She wasn't exactly in need of a career booster at the time but the film certainly consolidated everyone's admiration considerably.

That's what's been happening for Margot Robbie playing Harding in "I, Tonya"--a sympathetic, mockumentary in format but only because the movie wants to be densely ironic about the pervasive banality of the way the story of Harding and skater Nancy Kerrigan was told in 1994.

It came to us on this side of TV world as the ultimate fruition  of everyone's favorite formulaic TV tale--The Rivalry, The Feud. In Harding's case, the rivalry she invented for Media World was between her - a hardscrabble, tough, profane Olympic-track skater raised by a single mother in Oregon - and Nancy Kerrigan, the beautiful welder's daughter from Massachusetts who embodied the sweetness and personal grace that female ice princesses were always thought to have in America. We always tend to think of them as swans who glide down placid rivers to earn our dazzled applause and than glide back into an adoring upscale world awaiting their return. That suited Kerrigan to a T.

Harding, as the film loves telling us, was nothing of a sort. She was a sweaty jock who swore like a marine, chain-smoked and, as she tells us in the movie, is happy to be called a redneck. She's the kind of girl who can fix a car engine and then wipe off the excess  grease on her expensive jeans.

She stands out among the would-be Olympic female skaters in America, says her coach, because "she looks like she chops wood every morning."

The way her monster waitress mother - harrowingly played by Allison Janney - raised her was simple: if anybody calls you white trash "spit in their milk."

When she skated, she didn't do it to fancy schmancy music, she did it to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag."

And, oh yeah, one more thing--she became the first American skater to performing the dauntingly virtuosic skating maneuver known as a triple axle, a backward whirling flight into mid-air which is among the many things that transforms something as graceful and artistic as figure skating into a competitive sport where brutally trained bodies are pitted against one another.

Which is how the idiot friends of Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly conceived of the idea of kneecapping her supposed chief rival Kerrigan.

By the time that monumentally stupid plan is fully engaged, we have seen how violent and vile Harding's world is. Her mother beat her constantly and belittled and berated her when she stopped. So did  Gillooly. She, in turn, berated her coach who tried her best to contain her prodigious skating ability in some sort of identifiably human and sensitive context.

The trouble is that figure skating is not just a sport. Out in the world, skaters are judged on "presentation." Harding's triple axle may be an athletic tour de force but skating judges weren't inclined to feel much love for a skater who competed as if she were a huntress going swan-hunting.

The very real story was like an American nightmare of competition at the time and indeed involved so much stupidity and self-delusion that you can understand why writer Steven Rogers (who did the interviews) and director Craig Gillespie want to adhere, as much as possible, to sarcasm if not outright comedy.

The unavoidable trouble is that when you're watching this limited but driven woman get smacked around by all the people in her intimate life, your inclination to laugh dies in your throat. Those interviews may have been "irony free" but the movie's attempt to find it keeps you from liking the film as much as you'd like to.

It is, in truth, very much worth seeing anyway for the most obvious reasons. Quite predictably,  Robbie as Harding and Janney as her mother are tremendous. It isn't just that they both go for broke in their performances--which they both do--but that they are capable of remarkable subtleties even when their engines are running in high gear.

I have always had one problem with Harding's story. No matter how much of a jock ice diva she was, she was also enough of an aesthete to take pride and pleasure in physical performances of extraordinary beauty. It's the untouchable facet of her personality. No one ever wants to talk about that Harding. It's too complicated, too difficult. Rivalry, after all, is our favorite American TV story so let's just shove everything we're trying to understand into that tale, eh what?

Too bad.

"I, Tonya"

Three stars (out of four)

Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney and Julianne Nicolson in Craig Gillespie's film about skater Tonya Harding's life before and after the physical assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. 121 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, much domestic violence and some nudity and sex.



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