I happen to agree with a number of critics that Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017) owes a remarkable amount to Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas (1990). I, Tonya is, in many respects, an echo of the earlier film, copying its narrative structure as well as its employment of multiple witnesses/storytellers within that narrative complex. In broad terms one could even say that I, Tonya represents a remake of Goodfellas. So what becomes interesting about Gillespie’s film are its differences from Goodfellas.
First off, I, Tonya is set within a matriarchal as opposed to a patriarchal sociological structure where it is the relationship between Tonya and her mother that is employed as a means of explaining and justifying the various repetitions of domestic events within the narrative. The lone figure of the mother in I, Tonya replaces the myriad of father figures in Goodfellas, drastically simplifying the situation to a degree where nuance becomes forfeit. This simplification (under developing Tonya’s relationships with her trainers and other women) speaks to a broader simplification whose design is to keep the audience at a moral remove. This tactic puts I, Tonya at odds with another film to which is has been compared, Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981), whose strength was to so immerse viewers within the “campy” world of a half-imagined Joan Crawford that the stakes, no matter how absurd, remained inexplicably “real”.
I, Tonya seems to be all about different kinds of removes in terms of audience participation. The direct address scenes bookending the flashbacks reiterate that these events are past-tense, thus negating the kind of suspense both Goodfellas and Mommie Dearest nurtured. Then there is the issue of class. Repeatedly within the film Tonya rebels against the class snobbery of professional figure skating. This kind of rebellion in American films is often, and this is the case with I, Tonya too, portrayed as the most American kind of “underdog” story (see any of the Rocky films for proof of this). However, the efforts to keep the audience at a distance from the characters renders their working class idiosyncrasies as a series of jokes. The filmmakers invite us to laugh at the characters not because they are witty, but because they are poorly educated, come from difficult and underprivileged backgrounds, and have tastes that are vastly different from those who will be seeing I, Tonya at urban art houses. In this way the filmmakers align themselves and their audience with the condescending judges at the ice skating competitions rather than with Tonya, even though her disdain for these same judges is valorized.
While audiences are laughing at rather than with Tonya, I, Tonya shifts its narrative from “sports biography” into the “true crime” genre, closing in even more on the parallels with Goodfellas. But this isn’t the kind of hybrid genre film represented by Mark Robson’s Champion or Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (both released in 1949), but a new kind of hybrid more akin to Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) or The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016). I, Tonya takes this newer trend and combines it successfully with Scorsese’s Goodfellas aesthetic by playing up the absurdity of the real life events much in the same way the Cohen Brothers treat violence as slapstick in Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007).
But how is this useful? The Paperboy addressed and critiqued race relations in the south during the sixties while The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story critiqued racial politics and policies in the less distant nineties; and both films treated violence with genuine horror and saw wealth as a kind of corrupting circumstance. I, Tonya similarly addresses relevent issues of class distinction and violence but in place of critique there is either endorsement (as I have examined above) or exploitation (the moments of violence are brief on screen, but the moments after, the moments of pain and vulnerability are drawn out from a distance to comical effect).
At one point in I, Tonya the character of Tonya says directly to the camera “They loved me, then they hated me”. And I wonder if she was speaking about the public at large or more specifically the filmmakers and their audience? I, Tonya is an enjoyable film, there is no easy way around that fact. But we must ask ourselves, at what cost are we enjoying this film? For me, this enjoyment came at the cost of the characters themselves. Despite Margot Robbie’s, Sebastian Stan’s, Allison Janney’s, and Julianne Nicholson’s performances none of the characters are allowed to exist beyond the immediacy of I, Tonya’s spectacle in human terms. Unlike Goodfellas, I, Tonya doesn’t have a century old myth within the cinema to dispel and subvert.