With its title tongue in cheekily evoking "I, Claudius," another epic tale of madness and debauchery, the dramatic comedy "I, Tonya" revisits - with verve, intelligence, scathing humor and more than a touch of sadness - the bizarre 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, by goons associated with the camp of Kerrigan's athletic rival, Tonya Harding.
If dredging up that tawdry subject all these years later seems tabloid-worthy and little else, you should know that the movie is a meditation on the elusiveness of truth. It's also a portrait of America at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, the coming epidemic of not-my-fault-ism and our soon-to-be-pathological fixation with fame for fame's sake.
"I, Tonya" is funny when it wants to be, poignant when it needs to be, and surprisingly effective in harnessing these deeper themes to a character who might otherwise be dismissed as a lightweight laughingstock. The film, directed by Craig Gillespie, is based on what we are told, via on-screen titles, were a series of "irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true" interviews that Rogers conducted with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (masterfully rendered here by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, in period-perfect makeup, hair and clothes).
It begins with 4-year-old Tonya's arrival on the ice, pushed there by her stage mother from hell, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). From that point, Gillespie tracks Tonya's slippery path, from the skater's abusive childhood to her downfall while still in her 20s.
Intriguingly, Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) appears in the film almost not at all. "I, Tonya" suggests that, in some ways, it's Tonya who is the victim. Yet it also doesn't offer excuses or pull its punches.
"I, Tonya" argues that it is not Kerrigan, but rather this little hellion, who first takes the ice to the tune of Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman," who may be - not despite, but because of her unsavory qualities - America's real sweetheart.