You wouldn’t think the world needs a movie about Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice skater banned from the sport for life for her involvement in the 1994 knee-capping attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. You’d be wrong. “I, Tonya” is one of the year’s surprises, a defiant, funny, and multi-layered saga of talent and class resentment, marred only by some technical oddities and a certain smug awareness of everything the moviemakers are daring themselves to do right.
The crude tabloid narrative that drove coverage of “the incident” 23 years ago — and that adheres to it today — positioned Kerrigan as the classy queen of the rink and Harding as a trailer-trash interloper. No matter that Harding had been skating since she was 3 and was the second woman ever to land a triple axel (and the first to land two in a single competition).
The movie upends and subverts that story line by focusing entirely on Harding’s side of the story, presenting it with a hard-edged farcical brio reminiscent of “The Big Short” or Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Indeed, Margot Robbie, who first came to notice as Jordan Belfort’s wife in “Wolf,” plays Harding in the kind of casting choice designed to make audiences take an actress more seriously.
The gambit works. Robbie is taller, bigger than the tiny, fierce Harding, but she gets the athlete’s forward drive, and the anger that seemed to fuel the dynamo, and when life hands Tonya lemons, Robbie sets her jaw and bears down. The script, written by Steven Rogers and incorporating numerous interviews with the ex-skater and others in her circle, is sympathetic but clear-eyed, foul-mouthed but fair-minded. It’s a slapstick disaster movie — a saga of American distress.
There are two chief lemons in Harding’s life. The first is a waitress mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who believes, deeply, that any sign of maternal love is a fatal weakness and that the judicious application of psychological and occasional physical abuse will only make her daughter stronger. Janney has always had a knack for unsentimental astringency and this is her most caustic role yet; some of LaVona’s comments are cruel enough to make you bark with laughter, especially those directed to Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya’s coach and the kind of decorous rink personality that represents everything the Hardings will never be.
The other lemon is Harding’s husband — ultimately ex-husband — Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), scrawnily handsome and insecure enough to use his fists on Tonya as necessary. “I, Tonya” is told in a style of exaggerated, ironic as-told-to comedy that intentionally curdles when the extent of the domestic abuse — and Harding’s grim acceptance and then rejection of it — becomes obvious.
The film reaches back to the early 1990s and Harding’s triumphs and traumas in the rink while skipping ahead to a weary older Tonya telling her tale to us from a nondescript kitchen. Other modern-day talking heads include Janney’s LaVona, Stan’s Gillooly, the coach, and a reporter for the TV tabloid show “Hard Copy” played by Bobby Cannavale, hooting at the rubes. Where’s Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver)? Seen only fleetingly in the knee-capping scene and otherwise mostly absent; not unreasonably, no one in Camp Kerrigan seems to have wanted anything to do with this movie.
But that makes sense, since “I, Tonya” is primarily about a conspiracy of dunces, led by Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), whose delusions of international espionage prompt him to hire two idiots (Ricky Russert and Anthony Reynolds) to maim Kerrigan and open the way for Harding to dominate the trials for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. The movie claims, convincingly and entertainingly, that Harding had no knowledge of the planned attack. It also indicates that she was her own worst enemy in plenty of other ways.
As directed by journeyman Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “The Finest Hours,” the “Fright Night” remake), “I, Tonya” is at its weakest when it rubs our noses with anthropological glee in its characters’ down-market lives; the camera dollying in on a Ronald Reagan poster in Shawn’s basement is a typical thumb-on-the-scale moment. The use of digital mapping to “paint” Robbie’s face on a stunt double for the more complicated skating sequences is distracting and fairly creepy, too; once you start noticing it, you can’t stop.
By contrast, the movie’s at it’s sharpest parsing the infinite ways in which Harding was found wanting by a bourgeois sport uneasy with working-class strivers; more than once, it’s made known that she’s “just not the image” the skating world wants to promote. And “I, Tonya” reaches a peak of acrid truth-telling when Harding sits in her kitchen, takes a drag on her cigarette, looks into the camera, and reminds us that among the many vultures picking at her pop-culture corpse were you and me and everyone who clucked our tongues or bought a tabloid or turned up the TV volume on this story in 1994 and ever since.
I’m not sure the filmmakers realize she’s looking at them, too. If they had, “I, Tonya” might have been close to perfect.
Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Steven Rogers. Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 119 minutes. R (pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity; domestic abuse)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.