This was a problematic film. If you did not know who Tonya Harding was before, this film does nothing to better understand who she was; if you did know about Harding and the incident, then this film also does nothing to better understand why and how it happened. Go listen to the New York Times' The Daily podcast that featured an interview with her, you will learn so much more about her as a person and her motivations, and that will definitely increase your appreciation of what the film may had been trying to say.
You know a film has issues when the best things about it were, in order: the editing (those figure skating moments were top-notched, minus some odd-looking face replacement CGIs), the 80s soundtrack (with the likes of ZZ Top, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Fleetwood Mac), followed by Allison Janey and then Margot Robbie. The narration was haphazard, the tone and pacing were all over the place, characters, including Harding and her mum LaVona, were all broadly caricatured (except Harding in the final 10 minutes - which Robbie rose to the challenge - but it was a case of too little too late) and the central relationships between Harding and her mum, and Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly lacked depth, complexity and substance. Everything was presented as a heady mix of tragi-comedy and mockumentary humour that masked the superficiality of the material and mishandled the complexity of Tonya Harding as a person.
Director Craig Gillespie made a great indie film back in 2007 with Lars and the Real Girl, a so-so remake of Fright Night followed and then he disappeared for a bit, and chose I, Tonya as his comeback vehicle. Following his filmography, it was not surprising that he presented this film in a comedic light. However, it did not work as a broad comedy, maybe as a black comedy it could have been better. It ended up mocking Harding's social background and struggles, as well as trivialising domestic violence.
An anti-hero(ine) can carry a film as long as they are well-written, complex characters with strong emotional relationships with the people around them, and grounded in reality. The Tonya Harding in I, Tonya is none of that. And it is only to the credit of Robbie that we are even vaguely interested in what the film is trying to say.
Robbie definitely stood out, and as shown in a few short years - since breaking out in 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street - that she is a good actress. She was the standout in the horrible mess that was Suicide Squad. And those final 10 minutes of this film really gave her a chance to shine and show her depth and her commitment to her character. And it cannot be easy to act and skate at the same time. But they really should have cast another actor for that brief teenage years (definitely for Sebastian Stan's Gillooly too). However, was she really better than Jessica Chastain, Michelle Williams, Judi Dench, Diane Kruger or Annette Benning other than having a showier role?
Similarly, Janney definitely had a showy role. Her role practically screams "Oscar Nomination Alert", and she surely stepped up to the challenge. She was the one constantly good thing about the film and she stole all her scenes. But I am going to reserve comments on her chances of winning until after watching Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, but Lesley Manville impressed me more with her subtlety.
Unfortunately Stan was shortchanged with all the focus on the ladies, his character was so badly written and he did the best that he could. However, anybody could have been in that role. Stan might just have to stick with Marvel and the MCU for a while.
Julianne Nicholson was also uninspiring (she was so good in Masters of Sex, but nobody really knows what to do with her).
The film might have a chance to take home the Best Editing award (against Dunkirk and Baby Driver, I doubt Best Picture front runners The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will nail this award), and Allison Janney seems to have a good shot at adding an Oscar to her Emmys. But in the end, it was not surprising that I, Tonya failed to get nominated for Best Picture despite two acting nods. Without Robbie and Janney, this film might have been even more intolerable.